By Karen Abrams
I have a good friend who lives in Guyana; his 11-year-old son recently sat his National Grade Six Assessment exam and this young man is special. I met him during our robot-building and programming camp during the summer of 2016. He was amazed and obsessed by the robots and begged to attend multiple camps, so we let him. While our trainers guided the young class through the fundamentals of robot building, he found the kit instructions, and by the end of day one had his table of peers build a robot, which was moving around the table and then the floor. He later discovered the remote control and with his innovation, creativity and thirst for knowledge, figured out how to control the robot with it. This feature wasn’t even part of the lesson plan.
It was because of his thirst for knowledge that our team decided to leave him with a robot kit and his dad reported that his building and programming with the robot kit was the first time he had seen him engaged and creative for what seemed like hours at a time. We also left kits with multiple community organizations and even with the Computer Science Department at the University of Guyana and along with my friend’s son, all the organizations that received robot kits will display their talent during the STEMGuyana Robot and Technology Exhibition at the Cliff Anderson Sports Hall on June 24, 2017, from 10 am – 3 pm.
On a subsequent visit to Guyana, my friend’s son showed me a link to an Arduino kit. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. It is intended for anyone making interactive projects. A smart student can get Arduino and Lego Mindstorm EV3 to communicate, when that happens, one can develop one’s own sensors for the Lego Mindstorm EV3 system. This is probably the fastest way to free your Lego kit and add your own devices. When you connect the EV3 and the Arduino, the world is yours! My friend’s 11-year-old son was very clear about his intentions so STEMGuyana sponsored his Arduino kit, he is an experiment for us, and we are monitoring him to see how far his innovation and creativity will take him.
But there is another powerful story that must be told about my friend’s son. After he learned that Team Guyana Robotics was practicing at the Cliff Anderson Sports Hall on Saturday mornings, he insisted that he wanted to attend. Our national team was essentially using a different robot kit, but one which worked with the same design, build and programming logic. While there, he chose to sit in a corner, apart from the older team members and spend his time focusing deeply on his building and programming. One particular Saturday, there was lots of discussion about building a robotic arm that would scoop up balls as required by the competition challenge. When the young man left for the day, our coach Ricky Chan, himself a Computer Science Engineer, picked up his creation and showed it to the team, they were in awe. Within a few hours, this 11-year-old had built a hydraulic robotic arm solution which was fully functional and which became a model option that was tested by the national team for competition.
The question for citizens of Guyana is how do we identify, challenge, recognize and empower the hundreds of young minds in Guyana who are awaiting the same opportunities made available to my friend’s son?
In the United States, or any of the developed countries, children like my friend’s son would be identified in elementary (primary) school. They would be taking accelerated Math classes from the Third Grade and higher. They would be part of the school’s robotics competition team and they would probably be part of a gifted programme or transferred to an elite school. If for some reason, they were not in a traditional educational system, like my 13-year-old son, then they would be a part of a university STEM programme targeted to younger students. At 12 years old, my son who attended a virtual school for the past two years applied and was accepted into Morehouse College’s ISTEM three-year programme. It offers Advanced Math, Design, Engineering, and Innovation classes within a rich project-based learning curriculum. They meet from 9 am – 2 pm every other Saturday during the school year and also attend an all day, one-month camp each summer. The goal of the ISTEM program is the same as STEMGuyana’s, they want to create young minds that are trained to think critically, solve problems, learn code logic and be challenged to be innovative and creative. These students may not necessarily be engineers but they will be trained to think critically about solving the problems in their community, their country, their region and the world.
The co-founders and financial supporters of the STEMGuyana initiative are determined that our young curious students must be challenged to deal with today’s problems using the tools of technology and encouraged by a vision of rapid development of the future Guyana.
STEMGuyana has been supported by the Office of the First Lady of Guyana, several government ministries, the Diaspora and will soon announce long-term sponsorship/partnership agreements with a few large public agencies and private sector companies in Guyana who share STEMGuyana’s vision for the future of Guyana’s children.
Those who doubt the vision must tell us whether we should begin preparing our young people today to design, build or assemble, program and pilot the army of drones we will need in the future to patrol the interior against drug traffickers, illegal miners, those who breach our borders, those who pollute our rivers and strip our lands, those who traffic in persons or even to meet the surveying, mapping and analysis of our interior lands.
Those who doubt the vision must tell us whether we should make moves today to use technology to help farmers to produce more, at a higher quality, lower cost and in a sustainable manner. Should they not learn to use robots to autonomously navigate their environment and perform actions at set locations, for example, picking a fruit, spraying a pesticide, planting a seed, imaging a plant, or making a measurement. Imagine a fleet of tractors and aerial robots with sensor systems to discriminate weeds from crops and apply herbicides where needed. There is no need to imagine any longer, these tractors exist and those who choose to make use of technology to improve farming productivity will be able to compete favourably in the global marketplace.
The future really does belong to those who prepare today. Traditionally countries with limited financial resources have been constrained in preparing their citizens for environmental and economic changes that affected the quality of their lives. Not so today, we have at our disposal access to the internet, a robust telephone network, good content and several stakeholders who are willing to help prepare our young people for the future. As STEMGuyana continues to field requests for our STEM program from multiple communities across Guyana, we intend to continue to partner with public, private, local and diaspora stakeholders who support our vision for the future and who will help us to achieve our mission to ‘unleash the world-class potential of Guyana’s youth’.