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UP engineering students teach school learners how to make robots

Inspired by its annual Robot Car Race, the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Electrical,
Electronic and Computer Engineering (EECE) and Unit for Community Engagement have initiated a Robot
School whereby UP students teach learners how to make robots.

Professor Tania Hanekom, Head of Undergraduate Studies and a Biomedical Engineering lecturer in the
department, has been playing around with the idea of the Robot School for years. “2020 was such a
challenge, and the Robot School just seemed feasible after dealing with so many tough situations during the
pandemic,” she says. “Our country and the world have so many problems, and engineers thrive on solving
problems. Just imagine how much good can come from more learners deciding to enrol for a career in
science, technology, engineering and mathematics [STEM] than what is presently the case.”

The school provides a platform through which students in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and
Information Technology (EBIT) can serve the community by presenting a fun STEM education activity to
school learners. “The curriculum was designed around a low-cost robot platform that was developed for the
Robot School by several of our senior EECE students; the curriculum is targeted at Grades 8 to 11 learners,”
Prof Hanekom said. 80 Learners attended the first school.

“We want to fit a pair of wings to our aspiring engineers, then push them over the edge into a world of
exploring and learning on their own,” she added. “We are also in discussions with an industry partner who is
interested in supporting the school in the future, which would aid the sustainability of the project in the long
run.”

Several students are involved in the project. “Pieter Roodt, a postgraduate student and assistant lecturer, is
managing the project under my supervision,” Prof Hanekom explains. “Final-year undergraduate students
are responsible for the engineering work required by the project, and second-year EBIT students receive
training from final-year students on how to present the lessons.”

For Prof Hanekom, the project makes an impact on various levels. “Firstly, it provides a free platform for
learners to learn more about robotics. This includes aspects of 3D design, electronics and programming.
Making an inexpensive kit available to support STEM education will be a terrific contribution to all the kids in
our country that do not have money for popular but expensive educational robotics platforms such as Lego
and Meccano. The idea of using multipurpose, readily available components is also to allow our robot kit to
be expandable and useful outside the context of the robot. We want to push a learner, teacher or aspiring
hobbyist over the dare-to-play-edge with a tool that allows them to continue their foray into the wonderful
world of technology.”

Prof Hanekom hopes that the school will blossom into a much bigger project. “The idea is to eventually offer
in-person classes for learners who need guidance throughout the course, but also to develop an online
version of the course that would be freely accessible to anyone. We also plan to expand the offering to build
more advanced courses on the same robot kit, and to adapt it for primary school learners.”

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