Stirring SA kids’ love for tech

Industrial psychologist Christina Clucas, brought Werner Venter’s robotics programme, EDRO, to underprivileged South African schools, after recognising that state schools in America the US, Australia, India, the UK and elsewhere all taught robotics as a subject.

In South Africa we still teach Afrikaans – and while language, any language, is great (polyglottists are said to be among the smartest people in the world) – we’re neglecting pertinent areas of learning over traditional ones.

Not one for the other, not more but manageable workloads for the most optimal outcomes.

Clucas points out that former US president Barack Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” initiative, was driven by his belief that robotics could inspire young people to pursue careers in science and engineering and thus produce future innovations and innovators. 

At St Henry’s Marist College on the Berea in Durban, junior primary pupils are learning to programme robots called Bee-Bots.

“By teaching our students the basics of robotics, we can open a whole new world to them and exciting opportunities that they wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” explained said Meredith Madgin from St Henry’s Marist College’s Academic Advancement Unit.

“The colourful, easy-to-use, programmable robots called Bee-Bots have arrow keys which are used to move in the direction they have been programmed (by the children). They can be used to introduce, consolidate and revise the many concepts the children learn during their school day.” 

56049592kidscodebots - Stirring SA kids’ love for tech
Bee-Bots help children learn the basics of coding.

The Bee-Bot can remember up to 40 commands including forward, backwards, left and right. It is programmed to move along the floor mats to the specific place it has been programmed to reach. 

Children will learn sequencing, mathematical concepts, learn to make logical decisions and will begin to think in original and innovative ways. “This is an activity that allows our learners to become technologically advanced without using screen time,” adds Madgin.

“While communication via the spoken and written word in the formative school years is vital, coding is also a form of communication that encourages children to be creative, solve problems, collaborate and engage with peers, and use critical thinking.”

The older pupils at the school are involved in Lego Robotics. An extramural “subject” managed by Robotics Coach Sadhana Singh that is linked to an international competition with 88 participating countries that involves building, designing and programming a robot to perform autonomous tasks on a game board. 

“At high school level there is an Arduino Robotics Club (ARC) which is apart of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) curriculum. The students are learning to design electronic circuits from scratch and then they learn to write a programmes that will control the device that they have built. From the simple design of a flashing light to more complex designs where a small car can drive itself,” explained Computer literacy teacher Willem Voigt.

At RA Padayachee Primary in Ballito Grade 3 to 7 learners pupils partake in an after-school STEM education programme, the AI Family Challenge where they get to explore machine learning, speech recognition, prediction models, autonomous vehicles and neural networks.  

STE(A)M educational specialist, I-Innovate partnered with US developers, Curiosity Machine to bring the AI Family Challenge to South Africa with the aim of ultimately reaching 20 000 learners in disadvantaged communities around the world.  

The curriculum is hands-on so that vital Digital Age skills such as computational thinking, electrical engineering, mobile computing and robotics can be developed while finding solutions to pressing community problems when it comes to food, agriculture, health, transportation and energy. 

I-Innovate chief executive, Trisha Crookes said: “Participants understand how autonomous vehicles process different signals by building a system of circuits to simulate sensors and rapid decision-making. Over the course of the challenge, participants develop a learner mindset that gives them a lifelong ability to innovate and problem-solve.”

Having previously connected Cape Town schools to the International Space Station through the ExoLab programme, I-Innovate continues to work with partners to bring global thinking and Digital Age experiential learning to South African learners.  

These tangible exercises are not yet mainstream but are promising because coding is the language of the future. Screens are where tech is at in SA schools and is perhaps a move in the right direction. Many schools have interactive smart boards and have implemented tablet learning. 

Sangari Education, a distributor for Veative’s educational virtual reality (VR) solutions, is placing innovative teaching and learning technologies into schools.

Sangari Education CEO Bez Sangari said,“Veative, using technologies such as 3D, virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, combines immersive and interactive education modules with plug-and-play virtual-reality headsets and controllers.”

The interactive modules cover physics, chemistry, biology, maths, educational tour and language learning. The kits include portable trolleys to keep headsets charged and safe when not in use while software assists educators with reports and analytics.

“As an example, students can experience an immersive module on photosynthesis with the help of a controller. They are able to go into the leaf and get a sense of how plants meet the requirements for photosynthesis. Such ‘look-see-do’ modes encourage students to explore, identify, engage and experiment with the content.”

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