Meet the African Kids Who Built Robots

One robot slammed into some blocks and nearly fell to the floor. Another sideswiped a wall. Yet another spun in dizzying circles.

So when the robot built by students from an all-girls school finally navigated the twists of the maze, flawlessly rounding every corner and touching every required flag, the crowd went nuts.

The girls were among students from 25 schools who gathered in Dakar to compete in the second annual Pan-African Robotics Competition.

For five days, in a city where horses and carts are still fixtures on the many unpaved roads, boys and girls from sixth grade to high school hunched over laptops and tablets at a camp, entering code to guide their small blue robots through a labyrinth meant to test their skills in a competition on the final day.

The event was organized by Sidy Ndao, a Senegalese-born engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is on a mission to help further science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM skills, in West Africa.

In America, the need for more STEM education has become a stump speech delivered by many economists and business leaders. They emphasize that improving these skills will help the United States create more jobs, compete better globally and increase its economic growth.

The same is true, Dr. Ndao said, in Senegal and across West Africa, where incorporating STEM education can help set a course to improve everything from sanitation systems to agriculture and can create jobs in a place with soaring unemployment.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here,” said Dr. Ndao, 33.

It is not that schools in the region do not emphasize math and science already. The all-girls school at the competition, the Mariama Bâ de Gorée School, is known as one of the best math schools in Senegal. Though some schools outside Dakar, the capital, do not even have electricity, many private schools in the city have computer labs, include math and science clubs, and offer more technology courses than in the past.

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But Dr. Ndao said the schools sometimes emphasized rote memorization rather than focusing on contextual learning. Students do not connect theories they learn with practical experiences, he argued.

“We have kids brought in from math and science schools, and when they see an airplane flying, they think it’s magic,” Dr. Ndao said. “But if you give them any math problem, they can solve it.”

Dr. Ndao went to school in Senegal until his teenage years, struggling through elementary school. But something clicked in junior high, and he decided math was his thing.

Dr. Ndao’s parents wanted a better education for him, so he went to New York, where he lived with a relative and enrolled in high school. Dr. Ndao said he had quickly risen to the top of his high school class and received a scholarship to City College of New York, where he studied mechanical engineering.

But there was a catch, he said: He was in the United States illegally. “People wanted to hire me, but I didn’t have any papers,” he said.

Dr. Ndao is an author of a paper titled “Near-Field Heat Transfer Enabled Nanothermomechanical Memory and Logic Devices.” But when he first got out of college, he went to work sweeping the aisles of a 99-cent store in the Bronx.

Eventually, he entered a master’s degree program at City College, then went on to complete doctorate and postdoctoral work at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His documentation issue was resolved when he married an American citizen, he said, adding that he has a green card now.

At the University of Nebraska, Dr. Ndao, a fan of nanotechnology, has focused on very small things and how they transfer heat. He is researching how heat, instead of electricity, can be used for computations in space exploration.

Having settled into a tenure-track position in Lincoln, where he lives with his wife and five children, Dr. Ndao wants to help West African children understand how math and science can improve their country. He persuaded the University of Nebraska to help sponsor the robotics event.

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In Senegal, entrepreneurs and government officials are embracing the idea of improving STEM education. A technology hub under construction in a new city being built outside Dakar will contain training and research facilities. Coding clubs for girls and women are popping up in the country and across the region.

But there are challenges. Internet access is expensive, and schools in some areas do not have electricity.

Dr. Ndao’s camp and competition are still a work in progress. Despite the Pan-African title, the schools that sent students this year to the Dakar event were all from Senegal, something that Dr. Ndao hopes will change.

His event aimed to tie together the farming societies of Nebraska, known for its corn, and Senegal, known for its peanuts.

On some American farms, satellite-controlled, driverless tractors are being tested to help make farmers’ work more efficient. In parts of Senegal, farmers can be seen bending over fields carved by a horse-drawn plow.

“We can change our future if we learn more about technology,” said Joanna Kengmeni, one of the students at the camp.

At the camp, students built robots from a kit, learned to program them and then created models of farms of the future that incorporated uses for their robots. One team created a robot with a fan that could cool crops in desertlike heat, or at least monitor temperatures, students said. Another team planned to use its robot for weed removal.

Another student at the camp, Arame Coumba Dieng, who was dressed in a head scarf and pink uniform, said she had taken to coding immediately.

“For me, it’s not difficult,” Ms. Dieng said. “You just need concentration.”

Ms. Dieng’s parents had religious schooling, but they did not go to a traditional school to learn math and science. So they sent her from their village to Dakar to study at the Lycée de Thiaroye. One administrator there described her as Miss Mathematics.

“I love math,” she said.

Ms. Dieng said she was not sure how she would reach her goal of becoming an engineer. She needs to balance her dreams with returning to her home village after graduation to help her parents, who have trouble making enough money to survive.

Source: New York Times

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