It took 10-year-old Arvind Sundararajan three months to build a robot. With colour sensors and a programmed set of instructions, his little mechanotronic contraption could pick out blue balls from different coloured balls. Now, he’s channelled his interest into making simple video games—a piece of cake, he says, compared to robots. “I prefer to make really advanced games with programming, but there are no books about gaming software which are meant for children,” he says.
His breezy scientific confidence is, in part, due to HatTrick EdVentures (Toronto-based Children’s Technology Workshop’s franchise partner in India), a Juhu-based robotics and video game-making workshop. Sundararajan is enrolled in this workshop, one of the several science and technology workshops and camps cropping up in New Delhi and Mumbai with the aim of making technology less arcane and more hands-on. With a healthy dose of fun and experimentation, these workshops (on an average, a 40-hour course costs Rs3,000-5,000) make dreary school-level science interesting.
“Technology becomes more doable, more manageable when you give students hands-on training, something schools often lack,” says Gagan Goyal, co-founder of ThinkLabs, A Mumbai-based firm which trains engineering students in robotics. He says students who get off to an early start with practical science, grasp concepts faster. “After each session, the scientific perspective with which you look at something is enhanced, and you start looking at possibilities,” says the ex-IITian. His firm plans to start summer camps in robotics in April.
Young scientists: At HatTrick, children are encouraged to seek solutions on their own. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Most of these workshop organizers, such as New Delhi-based Building Blocks and Goyal’s ThinkLabs, also sell or plan to sell kits which contain all the equipment needed to become a full-time tinkerer. These range from the simple ones (priced at Rs500-1,000) containing soldering irons, screwdrivers and pliers to complex gears (priced upwards of Rs1,500). For instance, the Robotics Kit, being developed by ThinkLabs, will include a simple software programme for eager robot-builders.
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But the thin line between merely putting tools in the hands of children and actually encouraging curiosity in science and electronics is often blurred. At an energy science workshop recently conducted by Building Blocks, for example, each of the 15 students had little toolkits and a neatly printed sheet with the day’s assignment—building a robotic car— explained in 10 easy steps. The parts themselves had been mostly pre-assembled, making this lesson in electronics no more complicated than joining building blocks. There were also exposition-heavy online videos, two instructors ready to help, and no extra parts with which the children could experiment.
The children’s plaintive cries of “Ma’am!” were more often complaints about faulty equipment or a matter of interpreting instructions than scientific conundrums or the unexpected side effects of electronic meddling. But these are minor quibbles. There were valuable skills being picked up—soldering, proper wiring and insulation—and the instructors encouraged cooperative problem solving.
At HatTrick EdVentures, children were given the space to explore the options on their own. Those who came up with questions at every step were asked to come up with their own solutions first. At the energy science workshop, Himank, a class VII student who took little more than half an hour to finish his little car, spent the next hour walking around rather triumphantly and curiously examining everyone else’s progress—even helping others with some tricky soldering.
“I’m going to try and put some LEDs (light emitting diodes) on my car next,” says Himank, twirling a screwdriver in his hand. “I hope I can get the wiring right.”