I am Dheeraj Tiwari (23), currently pursuing B.Sc (Physics) from IGNOU, been in Bangalore for more than 3 years now. The many successes of my robotics curriculum in government school pushed me to make a business out of it. The original motive had been to do philanthropic work for government schools and learn something along the way in the fascinating field of robotics.
Along the way, Vinod Kumar (20) and Vasanth Solomon Suresh (24) joined hands with me. Vinod did his schooling in Agara government school and is currently pursuing his BE (Electrical) from Oxford College. Vasanth is pursuing Post Graduation in Ireland.
Vasanth and Vinod with Vinod's Prize Winning Project
The Beginning of a Dream
I knew an industrialist and technocrat, Mr Ashwin Naidu, whose niece Ananya Rajagopal, schooling in US, had a patent of process under which she distributed phased out Lego Mindstorm Robotic sets to the underprivileged schools. We got inspired by that and wanted to do something similar in India. But there were a few limitations of Lego, the first being the cost factor which would be a major roadblock when going for widespread reach and secondly, limited variations of robots one can make using a single kit.
We wanted to keep the material cost low so we opted for locally and readily available electronics and hardware. And we found it to be better suited than Lego or other kits already available in the market as it offered us flexibility for customization on it. We selected an open source platform, Arduino Micro-controller with its SDK (software development kit). Micro-controller is the brain of a robot and controls all the parts through electric signals.
Then we took the initiative of preparing our own curriculum tailor made to suit local requirements. So we got to curating and writing the part 1 (titled-‘Introduction to Robotics’) of our curriculum, which took us around 4-5 months. We named our new venture NxG. [www.projectnxg.com]
Robotics projects made by students
Moving to the Markets
As the logical next step, we started approaching schools. Since Vinod has seen the government school's working up close, his experience came to good use while approaching the schools and coordinating with the authorities.
We targeted government high schools in our vicinity that were keen on coordinating with us in providing a few computers and were good with letting the students stay back a couple of hours after school for the robotic classes. We started with Vinod’s alma mater, Agara Government High School in Dec 2016. By next month, we approached and started the program in three more such schools. The total course duration was of 40 to 45 hours. We took one class of 1.5 - 2 hrs per school per week. Initially, we had students from 8th and 9th grades and this naturally graduated to inclusion of 10th grade as well. Each batch strength ranged from 6 to 15.
More about NxG
The idea behind NxG is to expose the children to the technology of future by availing the equipment and training classes, something which is not easily available to the underprivileged kids.
We focus on being an enabler and facilitator for a broader vision and better understanding of technology and we do so by our streamlined process of teaching robotics with consistency. We want to give time to students to actually absorb and understand the electronic concepts and various components, its nuances and where and how it can be used. It costs around 35K to 40K INR to run the part 1 course for 40 students, excluding trainer’s fees and other expenditure like travel.
The proud Robotics Geniuses
The Many nuances of Robotics
For children, Robotics may seem unattainable and daunting initially, but once it is broken down to basics, it becomes a fun way to learn many things. If a child has a basic understanding of physics and some aptitude for programming, they can easily build robots.
I don’t think other than robotics any other stream of learning encompasses the entire concept of STEM education so well. There are a lot of physics concepts in the form of electronics and motion dynamics. Then the programming we use is purely in C-Language, which is usually covered in schools as a part of curriculum and is easy to learn. Students crafting and designing their own chassis for the Remote Controlled car could be a good example of basic engineering.
In this way our robotics curriculum complements the existing science subjects as an add-on practical. We have actual feedback from the school teachers that the students are doing well and coping better with studies with the exposure to Physics through Robotics. Students also get a chance to learn social skills, teamwork, communication and project management, the joy they feel in doing this being the cherry on the cake.
Not without its share of Challenges
A few of the many challenges that we faced initially were retaining female students. Due to preconceived notion that technology and engineering is better suited for males, the girls were discouraged from participating even though they were equally good. Then again, the girls used to drop out due to post school hours sessions, which they were not comfortable with. Hence, to increase the participation of female students and to retain them, we focused on getting female volunteers, convincing the parents and tweaking class timings so as to avoid staying back post school hours.
Another challenge was to keep the class interesting for the students especially during the first few theory sessions. We tackled this by focusing on hands-on learning approach. For example, if we taught about an electronic component, we would let them tinker with it and later use it in circuits. We don’t teach theory for more than 15 mins at a stretch, as it can become monotonous. We always add some practical activity in between the topics.
Hard at work
The Road Ahead...
We are not only looking to expand it to a few more government schools from next academic year, but also continue with the students who have completed part 1 and are ready to move to part 2 (sensors and automation). We are looking at launching this robotics model and curriculum in private schools as well and make it financially sustainable for the trainers involved.
I have always believed in integrity in whatever I do, and I have applied the same ideals to my business model also. To have a sustainable model that will provide an educational medium for kids to learn robotics in best way possible. And with the accumulated knowledge base and other resources to diversify into R&D and for this, I take up freelance automation projects.
Every citizen must try to give something back to society in one form or another. Only when more and more people come together for a collective good of present then only you can have a foundation stone for better civilized tomorrow.