From Lego bricks to battle trophies: the journey of a robot designer

For Duke Kunshan Class of 2027 undergraduate Peixuan Liu, winning first prize in numerous robotics competitions is testament to a passion for electronics and engineering that began as child playing with Lego blocks.

His raft of wins has included the VEX Asia Open, the Shanghai Adolescent Robotics Competition, the VEX Asia Open Online Elite Exchange Competition and the VEX Asia Robotics Championship China Trials East China Division. But more than trophies, the winning journey has been one of discovery and challenges, which has helped him to develop confidence and make close friends along the way.

Peixuan Liu (fourth from left)

As a young boy, while his peers studied music, chess, calligraphy and painting, Liu developed a special interest in Lego, which he used to build cars and castles. As he grew older, he began to explore more challenging construction projects, such as figures and military vehicles.

In third grade, he discovered the robotics kits Lego NXT and EV3, and began combining construction with a new knowledge of programming.

“These were actually my first teachers,” Liu recalls. “At first, I built them step by step according to the instructions. Then, bit by bit, I began to create things I liked, like cars, using my imagination.”

In the fourth grade, he took part in his first robotics competition, a Lego football game, which he attended with his father.

“Looking back, the game was quite childish,” he says. “The programs were written with the help of teachers. All we had to do was to use robots on the spot to move the ball into the goal, without the need for any innovative designs. But I believe this stimulated my desire for a challenge.

“I increasingly realized that things that could be built according to the instructions were too simple. Lego doesn’t require much knowledge of construction and programming because they are modularly designed predefined programs, and you only need to assemble them as instructed. This didn’t live up to my expectations of robotics, so I wanted to try something more creative.”

In sixth grade, Liu joined the Hongkou District Youth Activity Center in Shanghai to delve deeper into robotics under the instruction of teachers. Then, when he was in the second grade of junior high school, his teacher took him to watch a VEX EDR competition. VEX’s EDR is a robotics engineering design competition program that provides students with a hands-on platform for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

It was Liu’s first exposure to a real robot competition and he was deeply fascinated by the DIY assembly process as well as the thrilling arena combat between the robots.

Enthused by the event, Liu began to design his own robots, gradually pushing his knowledge and creativity forward as he did, from plastic components to metal.

In high school freshman year, he joined the Hongkou District Youth Activity Center’s robotics team, where he was first tasked with fixing robots that were slightly worn or damaged in competitions. Over time he became a more integral part of the team, and eventually a key member of the robot building squad.

As his design skills grew, so too did his confidence, as he made close friends with his fellow robot makers.

“I was a truly introverted student in junior high school. I just liked to study on my own. But here, as a member of a big team, I had to learn to communicate with others so that I could get opportunities,” he says.

Peixuan Liu (right) during a robot competition

In December 2021, the team entered the VEX Robotics Asia Open, held in Xi’an, China, a qualifying channel for the VEX Robotics World Championship, the largest robotics competition in the world. With the team leader retired and new members lacking experience, Liu took the helm for the event.

The pressure was immense, he says, and was added to by the fact that the team’s robots had been badly damaged in a contest at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in October, which meant he would have to build entirely new ones for the Xi’an event.

Peixuan Liu (first left) with teammates at a robotics event

He spent every spare waking moment on the task ahead, biking to the youth center after class (with a brief stop for dinner on the way) where we would immerse himself in the world of robots.

“This was how I spent every day back then, but the competition didn’t interfere with my studies at all,” he says. “In fact, it actually helped me with my studies, not only because I learned a lot of practical knowledge in the process that I could apply to theories, but more importantly, I improved my time management skills, efficiency, and resilience to stress.”

The aim of the competition was for robots to pick up rings scattered across a square field, placing them in designated spaces, before taking their place on a tilted platform. For Liu, engineering a robot to perform the task was relatively easy, but the programming proved more difficult as it was a task that had previously been performed by teammates.

“I was a customer and a waiter at the same time,” he says, with a smile.

Fortunately, help came in the form of a friend nicknamed “Mr. Potato,” a college student and fellow robot enthusiast who coached him in the fundamentals of programming.

By mid-December, just as Liu finished his preparations for the contest, it was announced that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event would go online for the first time in its history.

It was a major setback to Liu, as the resulting changes in the competition meant he had to go back to the drawing board to make adjustments to his robot.

“In the ten days leading up to the game, I felt as though I was dreaming,” he says. Every day I got up in the morning and went to class, went to the club after school, and didn’t go home until 11 or 12 in the evening. I stayed up until 3:30 the night before the competition. Then I got so exhausted that I went home, slept until 7 o’clock, and went back to the club to finish debugging. During the competition I felt like I was sitting on a cloud, light as a feather.”

Despite the sleep deprivation and stress, Liu won the competition, relying on muscle memory to help him control his robot. However, the high of success was soon to be replaced with disappointment, as he was unable then to attend the world championship contest in April the following year, as the pandemic prevented him from travelling.

As the pandemic continued, with no competitions to work on and little social contact, Liu lacked motivation and his school grades began to suffer. That was until he learned about Duke Kunshan University from a senior in the Class of 2025, who he had met through their mutual love of robotics.

“He told me that the atmosphere at DKU was great and that the school would support me in doing whatever I wanted,” he says.

Once again enthused and with a goal ahead of him, Liu determined that he would get the grades to join Duke Kunshan.

Now a DKU undergraduate, Liu continues to dedicate much of his spare time to robotics. He has joined the university’s VEX Club and recently took part in a regional robot competition in Suzhou, a city neighboring Kunshan.

Despite being a freshman, in the robotics world he is considered a senior among his classmates, because of his long experience and knowledge of robot design. So advanced are his skills in fact, that he has now begun to referee events, his first time at a Shanghai competition last November, at the invitation of his old friend Mr. Potato.

Looking ahead, Liu says he hopes to interest more DKU students in robot building, as well as continuing to pick up competition trophies. His aim is to reach the world championships in Dallas, in the United States, where he says he could learn from the best teams in the world.

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