Each August hundreds of students from across Western Australia descend on a vast gymnasium at Perth's Curtin University to act out the ultimate Hollywood blockbuster fantasy – a robot war.

In this epic two-day event, the RoboCup Junior WA Championships, teams from schools from across the state guide their robots through a series of challenges – dancing, soccer, a rescue maze to name a few – to prove they've built the smartest, strongest cyborg on the block.

Kids from around Australia compete in RoboCup

"It's pretty exciting," says Rio Tinto's senior adviser, Community Investment, Jackie Walsh.  "The kids get dressed up in the same costumes as their robots to perform a dance, and their classmates, parents and friends are in the audience cheering them along."

RoboCup is one of several educational programmes focusing on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) that Rio Tinto supports across Australia.

These initiatives are designed to stimulate a passion for STEM, beginning with primary school and continuing through high school and into further education at TAFE or university.

"Rio Tinto is at the forefront of innovative technology in the mining industry, so we have a contribution to make in creating a STEM-literate society," says Vice President, Human Resources, Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Nicky Firth. "We need employees who are completely comfortable with science and technology because technology is becoming more integrated with all aspects of modern living – including our workplaces."

"RoboCup is a lot of fun. The students love it. But it's also teaching them the principles of automation and artificial intelligence. It's a long way from a dancing robot to an automated drill rig, truck or train but the coding skills and principles of embracing innovative technologies are just the same."


Making science and
technology fun

Making science and
technology fun

One of the most high-profile of Rio Tinto's education partnerships is with Scitech, the not-for-profit organisation behind RoboCup.

One of the most high-profile of Rio Tinto's education partnerships is with Scitech, the not-for-profit organisation behind RoboCup.

Scitech's mission is to increase awareness, interest, capability and participation of all Western Australians in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Scitech operates a world-class science centre in Perth.  Each year hundreds of thousands of Western Australians visit Scitech, enjoying and learning from its large-scale interactive exhibitions that reflect the latest innovations in science and technology.

Scitech also runs an outreach programme that takes STEM into schools across the vast state that's home to Rio Tinto's iron ore operations in Australia.

"All schools in Western Australia get a visit from Scitech every three years. Rio Tinto's support allows Scitech's team to travel statewide, bringing those people with a passion for STEM and an ability to communicate that excitement to students, all the way from early childhood to those students making choices about their careers."

Jackie says that some of the best communicators of the love of STEM are Rio Tinto's own people.

"We have a huge number of Rio Tinto staff who love to get involved in our Scitech partnership and others across the country. A lot of our employees volunteer their time in Robocup. They assist with the judging and get involved in all aspects of the competition," says Jackie.

Image: Nick Wood, chief operations officer, Scitech

Getting teens involved in another kind of heavy metal

Another of Rio Tinto's partnerships in the area of STEM is with Murdoch University's School of Engineering and IT.

Rio Tinto's support facilitates a range of activities that encourage interest in chemistry, physics, mathematics, statistics and engineering. It also gives them insight into the science involved in the mining industry.

"Our aim is to foster a culture of innovation amongst our educators and students in the area of STEM learning," says Nicky.

"We're particularly keen to build an inclusive picture of STEM careers – for instance, to encourage more women and young Indigenous people to get involved in science and technology. Working for a mining company was typically a male career. The automation of the industry provides an opportunity to changing that and our education partnerships are playing a major role in that evolution."