Robotics camps help Ndao craft opportunities for African children

Robotics camps help Ndao craft opportunities for African children

Sidy Ndao (righ) offers advice to a student team as it finishes assembling a robot at the SenEcole robotics camp in Dakar, Sengal, in March.
Courtesy photo
Sidy Ndao (right) offers advice to a student team as it finishes assembling a robot at the SenEcole robotics camp in Dakar, Sengal, in March.

Growing up in Senegal, Sidy Ndao dreamed of one day becoming a scientist so that he might make his own world better.

Now, in addition to his work as an assistant professor in UNL's department of mechanical and materials engineering, Ndao is trying to create those same opportunities for children in West Africa through yearly science, technology, engineering and mathematics camps. Ndao hopes that introducing students to robotics inspires them to dream.

“I’ve seen how education has helped me — becoming financially stable and being able to enjoy certain privileges,” Ndao said. “I felt this same thing can apply to other people, especially underprivileged children living in Africa, where many of them don’t have access to high quality STEM education. They can grow to be future leaders and enable their families to have a better life.”

During UNL spring break in March, Ndao and colleagues from Cheikh Anta Diop University hosted the three-day robotics camp in Dakar, Senegal. Five-student teams from eight high schools in Dakar participated. The students learned the basics — the history of robotics, building a robot, programming it to perform specified tasks and operating it.

It’s an extension of an effort that Ndao began while in graduate school, when the biggest challenge was monetary and he was paying for much of the expenses with “pocket money.”

After coming to UNL in 2012, Ndao said, the program began to grow. He tied some of the expenses to his research projects and laboratory, but later pitched the idea to his department chair, Jeff Shield, and college administrators, who all have given support.

“Having ties to UNL can open a lot of doors because you can tap into resources in the university and apply for grants, and that has worked out very well,” Ndao said. “And it makes it possible that some of these students might one day come to UNL to become engineers, too.”

Beyond individual impacts, Ndao believes that having highly STEM educated workforce is essential to the sustainable development of Africa and that one way to achieve it is through early engagement of young girls and boys in STEM via programs such as robotics and engineering design competitions.

Ndao has already begun working on the 2016 robotics camp and has set his plans in motion to expand the scope of the camp from his native country to recruit students from across West Africa to take part in an event called the Pan-African Robotics Competition, or PARC.

While his hopes for success are high, Ndao said he is trying to remain realistic about this endeavor.

“We have to be modest at the beginning. We probably won’t get students from all countries in Africa to travel this first year,” Ndao said. “We want however as many kids from all over Africa to come together and compete against each other in a friendly robotics competition. The idea is to have something similar to what we have here in the U.S. with the FirstRobotics and Lego Leagues teams.”

As part of the program, Ndao and his team of UNL students have designed a prototype of a low-cost robot — called “AZIBOt” — built entirely of parts that can be 3-D printed. Ndao said he envisions being able to ship the parts for the robot, a replica of the competition field and the specifics of the tasks to be completed to teams interested in competing.

“We’re planning to make 25 to 30 sets to give to the teams and get them started. It’s all being built here, all by our university students and a few high school students helping on the playing field design,” Ndao said. “The idea is by sometime in November to send the kits, and I will leave during the spring to do some of the preparatory work there.”

The theme for PARC 2016, "Powering Agriculture," should resonate with the African students, Ndao said.

“Food, water, and clean environment are among challenges that African countries need to overcome, let’s start with STEM education” Ndao said. “The challenge will be for students to devise solutions for improving agriculture using science and technology – robotics, precision agriculture, machinery and so on”

If all goes as planned, Ndao said he expects to have another spring break that will be anything but a break. For most of the days leading up to the start of the 2015 Robotics camp, Ndao was sequestered at a Dakar hotel, working on the final details for the camp and his UNL responsibilities.

But seeing the faces of the students who are being inspired by the possibilities of technology and the pride in their parents’ eyes, Ndao said makes all the work worthwhile.

“It’s going to be a busy year and busy spring, but it’s a passion. Honestly, when I see all these things happen in front of me, I’m no longer tired,” Ndao said. “It’s worth everything, and I’d do it again and again.”

A student sketches possible changes to his team's robot during Sidy Ndao's robotics camp in Dakar, Sengal.
Students prepare to race robots during the third and final day of Sidy Ndao's robotics camp, held in Dakar, Sengal, in March 2015.