RWANDAN president, Paul Kagame, took to the podium at the largest scientific gathering in African history – the Next Einstein Forum – to voice his concerns over the continent’s huge deficit of science and technology professionals.
“Africa was largely bypassed by the last three industrial revolutions” he said. “The pressure is on to catch up and keep pace so Africa is not left in the wake of technological progress.”
One of the most promising ways to keep pace is interesting African students into studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which together with research anchor much-needed innovation.
Sadly, the reality of the vast majority of classrooms in Africa today is that they are not conducive to fostering such interest. Many teachers struggle to spark the creative juices of young students, leaving the learners with the perception that maths and science are complex and difficult topics. This hampers invention—the greatest scientists are all individuals who perpetually ask the question “what if” as they make their great discoveries.
But one young Senegalese scientist is trying to change this, using the very same tools he hopes that African students will one day aspire to make…and take them to the next level: robots.
Learning with robots
Sidy Ndao set up SenEcole, an organisation which seeks to promote STEM education through robotics as the best form of learning tool.
“We need to get youth interested in science from an early age in order to build a strong scientific community,” Sidy said in an interview with Mail and Guardian Africa.
The main challenges to this are twofold, he says. First, there is the passive education that doesn’t allow students to be more “active, letting their imagination and innovativeness develop.”
Secondly, a lot is learnt through theory but isn’t put it into practice –essentially “how laws can be used in actual life” is not demonstrated.
To address these challenges, he is using SenEcole to come up with innovative solutions.
He established the Pan-African Robotics Competition (PARC) where African teams compete around a theme. This years’ competition, “Powering Agriculture”, is expected to challenge students into devising solutions to improve agricultural production, efficiency, and safety using science and technology. The entries may include a variety of robotics, precision agriculture or other types of machinery.
PARC is a way to put STEM into context for African students - allowing them to see their many applications and opportunities.
Sidy also developed a robot kit called the Azibot. The robot kit is open source, meaning anyone can download and using a 3D digital printer, can print and assemble it themselves.
“We need engineering to create solutions that are affordable. Cheap is a reality. Azibot is as good as any robot you’d find in the international market and, as long as teachers have access to a 3D printing machine, it can be used in classrooms in any part of Africa.”
He said that they eventually want to commercialise it so they can sell the assembled robots to schools around the continent.
Azibot, and the rich lesson plans that come with it, is an incredibly valuable tool in introducing students to robotics, programming, and engineering. So far, it has been downloaded almost 800 times.
Sidy and SenEcole have also found a way of dealing with teaching quality and student engagement by creating an online platform where Africans can watch videos and download lesson plans.
“Tecktal‘s objective is to democratise learning in Africa,” said Sidy.
“If schools and teachers can’t afford to purchase experiments we do it for them, film it and put them on a platform which is freely accessible.”
STEM education is critical for Africa’s sustainable development in this globalised economy, and galvanising youth interest at an early age is fundamental to this.
As Sidy says, “[Africans] are competing with the world…for Africa to have any chance they need to have robotic information which make things more productive”.