Neetu and Anu say that through robotics, children can learn important life skills like identifying problems and finding creative solutions.

These Kerala women are teaching students to build robots with AI and simple tools
news Education Thursday, October 18, 2018 - 18:45

When Neetu Sara Mathew and Anooja Mary Jacob (Anu) moved to Thiruvananthapuram from Bengaluru and Mysuru respectively two years ago, they wanted to enroll their children in some extra-curricular activities. Both of them have worked in the IT industry for 12-14 years and wanted their kids to understand the importance and joy of innovation and technology.

However, they did not find anything that catered to what they were looking for. And so, the duo decided to start something to bridge the gap. In April this year, they started MyRobo, a Robotics Academy, which they say, is one of the first to be started by two women in Kerala. Not only do they provide courses for schools in Thiruvananthapuram, but also take classes at their centres in Kazhakoottam and Nalanchira for students from class 3 to class 9.

Importance of STEM for children

You might wonder – why robotics? This is a question Neetu and Anu get from a lot of parents as well. Well, it has more to do with the life skills children can pick up while learning robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), Neetu explains.

“Keep focusing on academics and it teaches you how to become a problem solver. But STEM and concepts like robotics will teach a child to be a problem identifier. We give the students a problem statement. They then ideate, design and create the prototype. Instead of being mere consumers, who only solve a problem in plain sight, this teaches them to question what’s given, identify the problem and then come up with a solution,” Neetu says.

“It’s a life skill that the student can apply this to any aspect of life,” she adds.

She points out that currently, children are mere consumers of technology. Children as young as two years know how to navigate phones and platforms like YouTube. “But the credit goes to the person who created that technology that makes it easy enough for a toddler to use. Through robotics, we want to encourage children to be more than consumers,” she adds.

What do they teach?

MyRobo has year-long robotics training sessions at schools, weekend batches at their centres, and also does paid workshops on robotics and Artificial Intelligence. They have been teaching at 10 schools, out of which one school – St Mary’s Central School in Ranni – has added robotics and AI to their curriculum for classes 6 and 7.

In other schools like Mar Ivanios Central School in Vadasserikkara in Pathanamthitta, Holy Trinity School and Bright Central School in Thiruvananthapuram, MyRobo takes hobby sessions, which are optional.

They also teach in a few schools in rural areas, where, Anu observes, children are much more enthusiastic and excited to take risks. “This is, perhaps, because they do not come from comfortable backgrounds. They are not afraid to take risks. They also realise the value of the opportunity. They have no qualms about taking things apart and getting creative,” she says.   

MyRobo has an eight-member team and also an independent advisory board which includes a paediatrician, a PhD holder in robotics and a person who works in Mercedez Benz and provides them with information about the latest developments in the world of robotics and AI. The courses, which have six levels, are age-appropriate.

For instance, Neetu explains, they start with teaching children the basics of electronics, like making them design paper circuits. They teach class 3 students to make a semi-autonomous robot.

She explains it with a situation - a robot that has four wheels. “We give the students a robot with only two wheels attached to it. It is up to the children to figure out if it needs more wheels to move. Once they point that out, we give them screwdrivers, nuts and bolts and supervise them in attaching the parts. We then teach them how a motor works, and they learn to make a bridge circuit to connect it to a remote that controls the robot,” Neetu says.

“The joy with which the children jump when the robot moves after they put in the batteries is unparalleled,” she adds.

The children then learn about autonomous robots, about different kinds of sensors, and subsequently, if they are capable and interested enough, basic programming. “If a class 6 student joins us, he/she will still start with the basic course or one that is best suited to their existing knowledge or robotics, if any,” Neetu says.

Gender bias begins from childhood

Being two women with plenty of experience in the fields of science and tech, both Anu and Neetu are all too aware of the gender bias against women in STEM. While Anu was a topper in M Tech in Computer Science at Manipal Institute of Technology and went on to work for a decade in Infosys, Neetu has an engineering degree in electronics and communication and has worked in IBM and Infosys.

“During my time, in a class of 60-65, there were only 10 girl students in college,” Neetu recounts. “It hasn’t changed much even now.”

She agrees that even the schools where they teach the courses, parents are keen on enrolling their sons than the daughters. “Once, a girl asked if I could conduct classes on a public holiday. When I enquired the reason, she said it was the only way she could attend it, as her parents had signed her up for music and dance classes, which do not interest her,” Neetu narrates.

Further, it’s a myth that girls are not interested or good at STEM. “In fact, we have girls who have come up with really innovative ideas. For example, at a summer camp in April, one of the girls mounted her teddy on top of a robot, which was like a car. Another one made the robot into a whole new moon-like structure,” Anu shares.

Neetu says that she has seen girls take more effort during the design stage too – they don’t mind spending time on this step, getting creative with drawing and even colouring their designs.

“It’s true that in most of our hobby sessions, which are voluntary (unlike curriculums), more boys show up. But the few girls who come are equally good. They are more hardworking and focussed,” Anu observes.

She believes that this bias is also felt by women who are in STEM. One of her female team members is a fresher. “She says that her peers are applying for banking jobs. She, however, spent four years studying robotics and AI and she’s not going to let it go to waste. The pressure is definitely more on people like her who have taken the unconventional path,” Anu says.

Out of the eight-member MyRobo team, five are women.

Anu and Neetu do as many awareness sessions as they can across Kerala. “We explain to parents that Anu and I would not be standing here if we did not have the freedom to pursue our careers in technology and chase our passion. And we are successful, so their daughters can be too,” Neetu says.

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