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Rise of the robots

A social enterprise uses Lego and robotics to make STEM education fun for Pakistani children.
by Mahrukh Sarwar

Gone are the days when Lego was considered child’s play. The building blocks that you played with in your youth have given way to a new breed of advanced programmable robots. Each version of this Lego building block system contains a few modular sensors and motors, Lego parts to create mechanical systems, and an intelligent brick computer known as EV3 that controls the system.

A Lahore-based organization is using Lego and robotics to popularize Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Meet Robokids — founded in 2015, it is a social enterprise that offers interactive courses in robotics, games programming, electronics and Mathematics.

Designing, assembling and programming a robotic model.

When you walk inside the door, the interior is as colorful as the interlocking plastic bricks the children use to make their robotic inventions. The organization believes that there are certain practical skills, or soft skills, like team management, organizational skills, time management and creativity that you don’t necessarily learn in an academic setting. So it aims to equip children with ‘these 21st century skills that they will need as they grow up and start their careers.’

“There are some practical skills like programming that every child around the world should start learning,” says Aftab Khan, founder and director of Robokids. “Just like they learn human languages — programming languages are also becoming a necessity.”

Read more: Starting them off early

Khan has a certification in STEM education from NASA and Columbia University. The team at Robokids, which comprises of electrical engineers and computer science graduates, takes time out to sit together and go through some of the global learning on STEM education, particularly focusing on the early childhood learning area. Then the team designs courses for participants ranging from three-years olds to adults.

A robotic model made by children at Robokids

“We want to give children things that they are interested in. So for instance, if somebody is interested in robotics, they get to play, assemble and program robots here. The same goes for smart devices and so on,” explains Khan.

Classes for children as young as three-years old are designed using a special pedigree of Lego products called Duplo. Larger in size than traditional Lego pieces, these are easier to handle and less likely to be swallowed by toddlers. In every lesson, the three-year olds are handed these blocks and given a problem situation related to science and everyday life. The kids learn problem solving by using these blocks. The aim is to teach them that it’s possible to solve any kind of problem as long as you go about it in a planned and organized scientific manner.

A class called App Studio I teaches children between the ages of nine and 10 how to make smartphone apps. Three children sit around a conference table in rapt attention, while an instructor guides them through the technical jargon. Using an open-source web application called MIT App Inventor, the kids who are newcomers to computer programming are able to create software applications that can run on the Android operating system.

Eighth-grader Hammad demonstrates his app on a smartphone. When he clicks on the picture of a cow from the various animal pictures on the screen, a loud mooing sound is heard around the room. To make another change, he edits the programming on his laptop and then scans the barcode with his phone to open the app there.

Preparing for the World Robotics Olympiad

Children as young as six or seven years old can use this tool to upload their apps on the website, and even compete in a competition called App of the Month. “These might not be cutting-edge apps but it gives kids a start especially if they want to get into this career,” says Khan. “Even if this is something they don’t want to pursue, it is definitely building their logical and computer skills. It’s also useful because it is improving their understanding of how programming works.”

Read more: Pakistani Girls Take on the Gaming Industry

Meanwhile, in the basement, three groups of students are preparing for an international robotics competition called the World Robot Olympiad. The theme for this year is “Food Matters.” Children can participate in four different categories with different age groups and form teams with two to three members and a coach. Participating teams are given a mission and to accomplish it, they have to design, assemble and program a robot model that is capable of performing the challenge, or can demonstrate a solution for a real-life problem.

This year, the mission is to make a robot that can help reduce food waste. Nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger but roughly about a third of the world’s food production is never eaten and goes to waste. Ayan, Saif and Rabyan, who are competing in the seven to 12-year age category, have to design a robot that can sort fruit products from a farm according to their quality or appearance.

The robot has to pick up different coloured bricks (where each colour represents a different type of fruit product from the farm) and then transport them to places that can make use of it instead of letting it go to waste.

Eight-year old Hammad shows off his Android application.

A colourful map with a black grid on it is spread out on the floor. Pointing at the map, Ayan explains, “We are making a program so we can sort out the different fruits that are here. Green blocks mean unripe fruit, blue means rotten fruit, red means fresh fruit and so on. We have to program the robot so it follows the black lines, picks up the blocks and places them in the correct color-coded grocery store, ripening room, food factory or biogas power plant.” To successfully complete its mission, each robot has to perform its tasks on the map and then return back to the finishing line.

“The fresh fruit goes to the grocery store, unripe fruit to a ripening room, ugly fruit to a factory to be processed into juice, fruit salad or smoothies, and rotten fruit to a biogas power plant,” adds Ayan helpfully.

On the other side of the room, another group of students are putting finishing touches on their robotic model. Taking part in the 13-15 year category of the competition, they have been assigned the theme “precision farming.”

A growing population in the world requires increased food production every year. One way to go about this is to use technologies like robots, drones, and satellites to make the usage of arable land more efficient. The mission of the robot is to gather data on the soil quality of the fields of different farms. Based on this information, they have to take different seedlings (in the form of colored bricks) and plant them in the correct place based on the soil quality.

Building a robot that is capable of performing the challenge in the “precision farming” category of the competition

Indicating a series of obstacles on the map, 13-year old Sara says, “We built the robot really high because we are planning to make it go over these walls.” Placing the robot on the map, she explains that they had designed it so the wheels were on each side and not the middle, so it could successfully go over the walls without any hurdles.

“We still have to add arms and program the robot now,” she adds.

Read more: The perils of drinking water

Khan says, “It sounds easy but if you look at the setup and how it is actually done, then you see that it’s actually quite complex. It takes quite a lot of time to figure out and that’s the important part, irrespective of whether they win the competition or not. The learning experience comes from finding something challenging and coming up with a creative design to solve the mission.”

When asked why she was spending her weekend in a class on robotics, Sara says, “I have an interest in Lego and robotics so I’ve been coming here for four years.” On the other hand, her teammate Beenish had already taken a class on robotics. Then she heard that there was a competition coming up and wanted to participate in it.

Building a robot model that helps reduce waste in the food production and distribution system.

Getting an introduction to computer programming

The children’s zeal for robots is reflected in their projects. Explaining the work they do in a class on Arduino for building electronic projects, Khan says, “When we are teaching these kids, the originality that is coming from the children is in the project itself. One child may decide to put together a project or device for smart street lighting. Another child may decide to put together an automated security alarm system.”

Although robotics is a popular academic field in most of the developed world, in Pakistan it remains on the fringes, with most students and academics choosing more conservative options for specialization. However, most significant advances in sciences across the globe are happening due to robotics and its intersection with other fields. “Things like programming languages, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics, these are just becoming part of our everyday life,” says Khan. “Parents and school administrations have to understand that the earlier they can get the students to learn these, the better.”

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