Robots are Giving Nigerian Children a Head-Start on STEM

Nigerian robotics entrepreneur, Christian Chime, has been making a name for himself using robotics to teach school children about basic scientific concepts and get them excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). The systems engineer is the founder of Surrogate Robotics Nigeria, a company that uses basic tools like Lego blocks to engage the children in problem solving exercises by building and programming robots to perform tasks that tackle real-world problems.

Over the past three years Surrogate Robotics has reached hundreds of children, but when Chime hit a snag – there was only so much he could teach with blocks and more complex robotics parts were too expensive – he found the solution in an interesting place, the GE Garage in Lagos. Chime approached the GE Lagos Garage and applied for their programme which would help him fabricate his robotics components himself; saving money and learning valuable skills in leadership and manufacturing at the same time.

The GE Garage programme is different from others in the industry in that it accommodates entrepreneurs with busy schedules who may be working during the day. For Chime, this meant he could simultaneously run his Surrogate Robotics business while completing his Master’s degree in Engineering, and attend the night classes at the GE Garage. Christian, you teach kids STEM concepts using robotics, why were you interested in this? What gave you the idea?

Christian Chime: I remember when I was younger I didn’t really get that platform to express my creativity and innovation, but I had a lot of ideas about how to build stuff and create stuff; I remember, I used to try to fix my toys, you know, open the toys up and see what makes them move and [sometimes] thinking, ‘hey, there should be a speaker in this toy because it talks’, so when it goes bad I would just unscrew the whole thing and try to fix it… I really wanted to give kids this same avenue to express themselves, I wanted to give them that first step to solving real world problems… I thought if you start when you’re really young to find models to solve real world problems using robotics and artificial intelligence, when you get older you’ll have that confidence to approach problem solving. When did the idea for Surrogate Robotics come to you?

Christian Chime: The idea for Surrogate Robotics came to me as an undergraduate student at the University of Lagos; I had been training myself [in robotics] even before I left school, and once I graduated I carried on doing what I was already [good at] and eventually started Surrogate Robotics. Surrogate Robotics is where we teach kids how to use robotics as a tool to learn and apply STEM concepts, so concepts they learn in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. So, we use Lego parts [in the training] because I discovered that it was the easiest way for kids to learn how to build their first robots. How do you approach teaching the children to use robots while also learning more about STEM concepts?

Christian Chime: For example, over one term at a school we will work on a particular project or problem, like building a robot that could help sort out waste – so we want to sort out the waste into paper, plastic, and glass, put the glass in blue bins, the paper in green bins, and the paper in red bins; then we will create models of these bins and put them in a particular location; now the task is to build a robot to go to that location and sense the color of the bins and put the waste in each particular bin. Can we actually build a robot that is intelligent enough to sense the colors, and bring the waste to the locations that we want? So, we will have a term to work on this problem, a term of about 9 weeks where we tried to get the ideas form the students about what kind of robot we could build to achieve this. This will come after we’ve done a basic introduction, so kids already know the parts that they have and the things they can achieve with those part… it’s goal oriented exercises to achieve something over a particular term. Tell us more about the processes and parts for building a robot – how complicated does this all get?

Christian Chime: So, the kids still work with Lego mostly because the challenge is to make it very seamless and very easy for kids to understand – we have to come up with a very graphic programme that they can see and relate to… most time the problem with kids is that if they just have to type code they get easily bored and tired and we don’t want a situation where they are turned off so we wanted to bring it in at a level that they are excited about it… [when] we bring in new prototypes that I am fabricating at the GE Garage then they will have more to work with… we’re hoping to get that all done by 2018. How old are the kids that you work with? Is there a minimum age?

Christian Chime: We target both primary school kids and also higher secondary school kids, though the prototypes we’ve created are really more suitable for the older guys who already have a basic knowledge of programming… we want to make it inclusive, so a kid from the age of eight can start to learn about robotics because at that young age they’re like sponges and they are very receptive about information that comes to them. How many children or schools does Surrogate Robotics work with?

Christian Chime: We currently work with five schools regularly – between the schools we run extra-curricular activity club, and we move from school to school to meet our clients, me and two other staff, training kids on how to use robots for STEM education, creativity and innovation, and to solve those real-life problems. But [irregularly] we move around from school to school for workshops and I know we’ve trained at around 50 to 60 schools already so far in Nigeria (around Lagos), I’m not sure how many kids that is but it feels like that should be well over a thousand by now… right now we’re running summer camps with kids over the summer break, and when schools resume we hope a few of those schools will want to continue doing trainings with us during the school year. How did this work with Surrogate Robotics lead to the GE Garage?

Christian Chime: The parts starting getting more and more expensive and, because I was looking to run a more inclusive training programme and I knew kids in Nigeria wouldn’t be able to afford further training or be able to buy the more expensive kits on their own, and learn the training on their own, I was looking for parts to source locally to build these more expensive [robotic] parts. A friend I met when I participated in the Young African Leadership Programme (YALI) had heard about the GE Lagos Garage training programme and what they do and thought it would be a great place for me to bring my ideas for locally fabricated materials for my trainings to life; so, I applied and was one of the 25 participants selected late last year (2016) to participate in their programme. What part of the GE Garage experience surprised you and taught you the most?

Christian Chime: With the GE Garage I just love the concept – even after you finished your program you can still go there to fine-tune your ideas to get mentorship. It’s not just about 3D printing and engineering but you can also learn about business and the right things to do in different situations, how to develop your business model, how to build better relationships with your clients, and all kinds of things like that. I remember there was even a class that was just about lifestyle, you know, how to be more effective as a person. So, I really learned a lot from mentors which were engineers – we had a lot of engineers around, we had a community manager, we had the head of the GE Garage and we could always just go into his office anytime and ask questions about entrepreneurship and how we could be better as entrepreneurs. At the GE Garage you work alongside other entrepreneurs working on their own projects, did you collaborate at all and what was that experience like?

Christian Chime: There are a couple of projects that people are actually working on together. For example, I met [an entrepreneur] there who worked on telescopes, and his line of work is also geared towards children and education, and we’re looking as working together on a project that involves science and technology because telescopes is also a part of science and technology. And then I actually got to learn a lot about the robotics that I’m doing from a cinematographer who is at the GE Garage, he uses motors and remote controls to pan his cameras so he could control his camera angles from a remote location – I saw some of his ideas, we talked, I asked him a few questions, and that helped me fine-tune my ideas more; I actually got to learn a lot from him and the other entrepreneurs that are working there. It’s one of the things I really enjoyed more about the Garage. You mentioned earlier that you were working on prototypes to integrate with your work with Surrogate Robotics, tell us more about this.

Christian Chime: So I came up with three prototypes. One of them is a robot that has two wheels and moves around and you can programme it to sense obstacles, and then you can teach kids concepts like mathematics and computer science through that. At the GE Garage was the first time I actually used a 3D printer, while I was studying graduate engineering I did a lot of 3D designs on a computer, but I had never actually printed them out so it was a really fascinating experience to see those designs come to life. I printed out my three prototypes at the Garage and they actually worked! But a lot of work still needs to be done on them to get them to the level where children can easily understand and relate to it, so that’s where most of the work is now. Helping children get excited about STEM from an early age is so important, but this is sometimes more angled more towards attracting boys rather than girls – does Surrogate Robotics try to redress this gender imbalance?

Christian Chime: Well, you’re right – statistics have shown that 80% of the people that view our [robotics] videos on YouTube are boys (or male). But we try to make our training very open to all genders. Last year we trained teams for an international robotics competition, and one of those teams was all female, not on purpose but because we put all the [trainees] through a test and the girls just did much, much better on the test so they were all selected to be trained for the competition – those girls came second in their category overall. But we don’t try to force children to learn things that they don’t want to learn but we try to make it as open as possible… I’m happy when I see projects focused on the girl child and getting girls involved in STEM education because they really have good creative ideas, they come up with ideas that even I didn’t think about [so] it’s really great.