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The winning group of 11-year-olds pose upon arriving at Phnom Penh airport
The winning group of 11-year-olds pose upon arriving at Phnom Penh airport. Charlotte Pert

Small people, big ideas: kids win award for flood solution

Cambodia suffers from severe annual flooding, and many people who can’t swim die every year as a result. An innovative solution to the generations-old problem may have been found, not by policy hacks or scientists, but by children.

A group of 11-year-olds from Cambodia’s one-of-a-kind Liger Learning Centre were recognised for their achievement at a robotics and problem-solving competition in Singapore over the weekend.

At the regional First Lego League competition – a global program designed to get children excited about science and technology – the team of six walked away with second place in the research innovations category.

They also scored a “rising stars” nod from the judges, who rewarded the creative thinking behind their solution, which was thought up during a special robotics project.

“In 2013, 188 people died from drowning and 88 of them were children, so our mission was to make natural swimming pools to teach people how to swim,” 11-year-old Ketya said.

The problem is that swimming pools are very expensive, his team realised. A cheap solution had to be found.

“[Our idea] is to plant water hyacinth plants [around it] because it is free and there is a lot in Cambodia.… It’s safe because it won’t be chlorinated and the plants will [naturally] filter and clean the water,” Ketya added.

The competition’s theme this year was natural disasters and involved programming and navigating robots around a model “disaster” table to simulate recovery efforts.

While the Liger team did not win a medal in this section, the students said they were not disappointed. The opportunity to travel to Singapore, work together and compete with much more experienced students was the real draw.

Ketya said: “I feel very excited and very happy. Because [there are] many other teams [and] some are 15 years old and I am 11 so I [did not] think I would not get any award because they are very big.”

The Liger school, whose latest batch of 50 students enrolled last year and has been awarded full scholarships for a unique education after being selected from around the country, aims to mould the next generation of Cambodian business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“The competition is about actually looking at real world problems, and at Liger our main goal is to teach kids how to problem solve and come up with creative solutions . . . [so] we couldn’t be happier to have won a prize for innovative solutions,” said Maxwell Cady, the teacher who runs the robotics project.

The group of pre-teens, who returned triumphantly to their peers on Monday, will be bringing home ideas more befitting of scientists or engineers than primary school students. And one or two simpler stories to share.

“[The trip] is very good but when [we] fly on the plane it was a little bit scary because the plane was flying up and down!” Srey Nith, 11, said with a giggle.

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