Township Robotics in an annual event in South Africa that teaches children to apply technology, science and math concepts while engaging them in a challenging exploratory process of creativity, problem solving, patience and persistence that foster a breadth of skills.
In South Africa, the local slang for a traffic light is known as a robot and if you called it anything but a robot, you would be quickly labelled as an outsider. The description of a traffic light as a robot developed from understanding a traffic light to be a robotic policeman, directing traffic in a safe manner, which over time became defined as a robot. However, On the 8th of September 2018, the Atteridgeville Township Robotics competition was hosted by the LEGO Foundation, Care for Education, and Hands on Technologies, bringing real robotics into the hands of the children and the community in Atteridgeville.
Atteridgeville is a township found West of Pretoria, South Africa, and has been the home for the Township Robotics event since it was first hosted in 2012. The event was launched when the LEGO Foundation’s partner, Care for Education, set up a programme in the area to offer a robotics class to be hosted once a week, during after-school hours, to different schools within the township. This year, a total of five robotics centers, each hosting 40 children from schools in the township, were resourced and given training to participate in the 2018 event, all showcasing their creativity, enthusiasm, teamwork and skills at building robots.
The event started with the judges and support staff setting up the venue. Colour-coded tables for each school were scattered around the room. Each school had their own testing table where dedicated teams practised their robots’ capabilities and when ready, would ask their delegated judge to score their robots’ run. When you are in a room of 200 eager children waiting for the START signal, you could practically tear apart the tension in the air, as they had to enable every bit of restraint as to not open their box before the start horn was blown. Once the start sound was heard, the room exploded with eagerness and intent to build and program a robot to complete a variety of tasks.
The LEGO® MINDSTORMS® EV3 robot is used at this event as it enables anyone who engages with it to build, program and take control of their very own robot. Each robot has the capabilities of connecting to an ultrasonic sensor, a light sensor, and an infrared sensor. These parts work in tandem with the computer program designed to assist in coding the actions of your robot. The possibilities are seemingly endless for the creator and creation. The robots are required to manoeuvre across a mat, detailed with black lines connecting a series of coloured blocks. The goal is for the robot to move LEGO bricks across the mat, pushing the red brick into the red square, the blue into the blue, to knock the yellow brick off the yellow wall without touching the wall itself. To sound an alarm when in the blue zone. To wave it’s ‘arms’ when in the green and make its way to the finishing block.
As an adult in this environment, I felt like the setting was designed for optimal learning. At times I caught myself in awe watching the children build and program their robot, analysing how to defeat the course at a faster and more efficient time. I wanted to jump in and build my own robot amongst all the excitement and fun. To think that over 200 children in Grade 6 could sit in a hall for over four hours, concentrating on the same goal, without complaining or wishing that the time was up. When the bell for the final 15 minutes remaining mark was rung, there was a state of panic. The children were in complete disbelief that their four-hour time limit was coming to an end. They still had so much to do, so much to try, and would not let the time limit defeat them. Brains and fingers worked in overtime as the final adjustments to the robots were made. The scores were submitted, and each child was a winner, walking away with not only a LEGO set, but the knowledge they created, and most importantly, the experience of playing with their friends and peers while building a robot. Not only did they share this feeling with their friends but were able to share their success with their parents and community who supported and indulged in the atmosphere from side of the room.
Interestingly, the moment when the hall was filled with the loudest screams of excitement and joy was when each of the team’s coaches were awarded with certificates of appreciation. The children went wild with exhilaration as each coach walked on stage. It was as if a celebrity was in their midst’s and you could not ignore the feeling that the children believed it could be them some day. The empowerment that these children felt and experienced is something that could be feeding them with hope to succeed on a global level. The education that they learn in this context could take them to places they never thought were possible. For the children, there was a strong feeling that this event could be anywhere in the world and not confined to a township in South Africa.
Events like these break the barriers of traditional education. By bringing robots and computer science to an under-resourced community, it reduces the gap of privileged and under-resourced education. The children did not have a world of experience prior to the competition as they each were only given one hour per week workshops for the past few months. The smiles, excitement and achievements that were displayed in that hall surpassed the look and feel of many privileged educational facilities. It was clearly evident that learning through play was being achieved in this context, and as a research psychologist who focuses on cognitive early childhood development, I could not fault one aspect of the environment that these children were engaged with. We are all in this world together, and it is empowering to witness that our futures, in all corners of the world, are looking bright and exciting.