When children explore with blocks and sensors and understand how software and hardware interplay with each other, they can create solutions to problems they see around them.

Meet Aditi who is teaching robotics to improve lives of underprivileged girls in TN
Atom Women in Tech Thursday, April 18, 2019 - 15:41

A team of 13-year-olds from Seva Samajam Children`s Home’s school in Chennai led by Bhavani and Keerthika have built an autonomous robot. Much like Google’s driverless car, this robot can interface with sensors, carry a payload, detect obstacles and even avoid falling off a cliff. While most children, especially from underprivileged backgrounds struggle to afford an education, this team is taking its product to vie for top honours at an international competition in Jordan in June.

In Vaduganthangal school in Tamil Nadu, 10-year old Vasumati has explored the concept of levers and force and discovered Newton's law of motion all by herself by building a seesaw with blocks.

These are just two examples. There are hundreds of underprivileged children, especially girls in Tamil Nadu, who are equipping themselves with the latest skills for jobs of the future.

This has been made possible by Robotix, an organisation founded by Aditi Prasad that is working on imparting valuable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) skills and ‘21st-century skills’ to school students.

When Aditi Prasad and her sister Deepti Rao Suchindran moved abroad to study and work, they saw a drastic difference in the education systems in India and abroad, which got them thinking on how children today can be equipped with skills to compete at a global level.

“There was a huge gap between the matchbox-type of education in India versus outside where they teach you articulate and independent thinking, which is developed at a young age. And these are exciting times because there are so many tools but we aren’t giving kids access to it, especially when we are in an era where 3 to 4-year-olds are growing up in a market with speech control type technology,” Aditi says.

Aditi says that there is a whole movement of technology, especially in coding and robotics, which is progressing at a very fast pace and several countries have started introducing coding and technology tools in classrooms. In order to bridge this gap in the education system, Aditi travelled to various countries, attended expos and conferences on robotics education and discovered various tools and apps that could teach children different skills.

She came back to India in 2009 to Chennai to start Robotix, which teaches children coding, robotics, app development, and DIY activities in fun and creative ways. The idea is to inspire kids to be inventors and creators and develop 21st-century skills and prepare children for the future job market.

Why coding and robotics?

According to Aditi, digital tools such as robotics toys, coding games and learning apps enable students to learn and be creative in fun and interactive ways.

“When children explore with blocks and sensors and understand how software and hardware interplay with each other, they can create solutions to problems they see around them. When children play with tools they understand and have so much fun using, they develop confidence, curiosity, imagination, enthusiasm and persistence and also build STEM literacy,” Aditi says.

Teaching the underprivileged

What is more interesting than what Aditi’s organisation is teaching, is who it teaches. While Robotix deals with several schools, it lays a special focus on underprivileged children, especially girls.

When Robotix started teaching after school programs back in 2009, they realised that girls showing up for the classes were very less. Aditi realised that biases against women start very young, right from deciding what toys they should play with and what kind of classes girls should take.

In order to change that, Aditi started Indian Girls Who Code with a focus on underprivileged girls. “If you look at the urban and rural poor, even access to good quality education is very rare. So imagine, if they don’t even have basic skills to be better equipped for the real world, we are going to have a bigger gap in terms of what jobs are actually needed,” she says.

So Indian Girls Who Code started with an orphanage called Annai Ashram in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, where there were girls who were abandoned due to several reasons. In order to ensure these girls had a secure future and could compete with the rest of the world when it came to education, Aditi started teaching coding and robotics here in 2015. Starting with 25 girls from the fourth grade, she kept adding 25 more each year as one batch graduated to the next level.

“In our programs, children walk into a class filled with toys, drones and blocks. It is the easiest way to get a kid to pay attention in class. “Our goal is to have a sustained education program for these girls, so they know it’s something they are always going to have,” she adds.

Robotix has also partnered with Ford Motor, Cisco, and Amazon to extend STEM, Robotics and Coding to more underprivileged girls. With the help of these companies, Aditi is hoping to reach a larger number of schools in urban and rural areas.

Across all the pogroms that Robotix runs, it has impacted more than 20,000 students in the past 10 years. Indian Girls Who Code has four programs running over the past four years, with 50-100 girls being impacted through each program.

Through these programs, children are learning to work collaboratively in a group to bring their creation to life, making presentations, travelling, competing and seeing kids from all over the world. Aditi says that this gives these girls the hope and confidence that there is a massive opportunity out there waiting to be seized.

Aditi’s next goal is to partner with colleges and corporates and help the children learn more, get them internships and eventually jobs. This, she believes, will change the whole trajectory of their lives.

And with its special focus on girls, the larger idea is to eliminate the gender bias that exists in the society, right from conversations inside houses and schools. “That language has to change first. Parents should tell their daughters that they are CEOs before they are princesses,” Aditi says. 

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