RoboCup 2016, the annual international robotics competition to be held in Leipzig, Germany, is just 27 days away.
In a 10ft x 10ft room in a school in central Bengaluru, six children, aged between 12 and 15, huddle around their mentor P. Sridhar, an Indian Institute of Science (IISc) graduate with a master’s degree in instrumentation. Sridhar is explaining how wireless technologies work, sparking off a set of questions from the children.
This could be a scene from a science camp at any of the international schools, but it isn’t. The school—Seva Bharat Trust Government School—is a Telugu-medium government school. The children—R. Ramakrishna, Lawrence Aga, C. Balachandara, Y. Arvind Reddy, A. Ramesh and Mir Ameenuddin—are preparing for RoboCup, which is considered to be one of the world’s most important technology events in research and training that aims to promote interest in robotics and artificial intelligence among young students.
The children come from humble origins—their parents work as plumbers and house helps. But they have already learned coding, which in simple terms involves telling a computer what to do by creating a series of commands.
“We are out to make a point that with access and opportunity, government school kids can really shine,” said Ashok Kamath, chairman of Akshara Foundation, an educational NGO that works with government schools in Karnataka. Two years ago, the non-profit set up a robotics programme as a pilot in Seva Bharat Trust Government School.
A robot programmed to dance to the tune of the Mission Impossible theme song won them the RoboCup Junior Nationals that was held in Bengaluru in February, beating 15 others, including private schools such as St. John’s High School and Bishop Cotton Girls School. On 30 June, the students from Seva Bharat Trust will be one of the 500 teams from 40 countries that will take part in the competition.
In India, 61.8 million children attended 244,653 secondary schools in 2014-15. Of these, only 36.6% schools have a computer and Internet connection, according to a 2014-15 report of the District Information System of Education (DISE). With this poor state of infrastructure, children in government schools often face a great disadvantage.
Kamath, who has been working in the field of education for underprivileged children for more than 15 years, said the idea to introduce robotics in government schools came from Lego Foundation, one of their donors. And Lego Foundation offered to give its robotic kits with software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robots.
It also gave an annual grant of Rs.10 lakh for three years to promote fun learning and stoke creativity among children in government schools.
Without thinking much about the outcome, Akshara Foundation set up a lab in Seva Bharat Trust with a dozen computers and 20 robotic kits. It was set up at a one-time cost of Rs.7-8 lakh. Running the programme cost another Rs.6 lakh a year, which was fully funded by Lego Foundation.
The programme was thrown open to children in the 11-14 age group and a few of them showed consistent interest.
Sridhar, who quit his job at a multinational technology company to join Akshara, designed a curriculum that started with basics such as “what’s a monitor?” and gradually moved on to writing codes to program motors and sensors of robots.
“These children pick up anything that is practical and where they can use their hands. They were able to sustain their interest as they were able to apply every concept I taught them,” said Sridhar.
As a result of learning robotics and its concept, the children have started doing well in their studies too, said Sridhar, who found that speaking in English was a bigger challenge for the kids than learning robotics.
When they took part in the RoboCup Junior Nationals in 2014, they could not understand the questions that the judges posed to them in English. Since then, they have been working hard on their language skills.
“We were scared how we will talk, but now we are more confident,” said Ramakrishna, who wants to study engineering and become a programmer.
The robotics programme may have opened their eyes to a larger world that awaits them, but they still have to get a college degree. And there lies another problem that India faces. Only 68.3% of students move on from secondary to higher secondary level, says the DISE report.
“It (robotics programme) is a good initiative, but it is not a substitute to core understanding of science. It is important to get the basics right first, which is a problem even in private schools,” said Jayant Haritsa, professor and chair of the department of computer science and automation at IISc.
He says the only way to ignite the imagination of children is to have better teachers, and India’s public and private education system faces the lack of enough good teachers.
Sneha Philip, team lead of knowledge curation at Dasra, a philanthropic organization, says while NGOs should look at innovation, sustainability is also important. “Because there is a huge need for the basic services, it is important to balance sustainability with innovation. It is important to see where does this go next,” said Philip.
Kamath is aware that programmes such as this aren’t very scalable as their success solely relies on good mentors like Sridhar. Still, he is optimistic as this is a step towards building scientific temperament in children—a thought that is absent in most schools. “Kids should be taught to push the envelope, and exposure to technology can help them do that,” he said.
The public too see the merit in this initiative to teach robotics. Vindication of that came last week in the form of Rs.5 lakh that Akshara raised by using crowdfunding platform Ketto, which will go towards paying for the children’s expenses in Germany.
For wider adoption, Kamath says after the international competition, the non-profit will approach the state government to expand the programme to schools at the block level.