A Mission to Bring STEM Skills, and Robots, to Children in West Africa

June 03, 2016
John Quinn

DAKAR, Senegal — One robot slammed into some blocks and nearly fell to the floor. Another sideswiped a wall. Yet another spun in dizzying circles.

So when the robot built by students from an all-girls school finally navigated the twists of the maze, flawlessly rounding every corner and touching every required flag, the crowd went nuts.

The girls were among students from 25 schools who gathered in Dakar to compete in the second annual Pan-African Robotics Competition.

For five days, in a city where horses and carts are still fixtures on the many unpaved roads, boys and girls from sixth grade to high school hunched over laptops and tablets at a camp, entering code to guide their small blue robots through a labyrinth meant to test their skills in a competition on the final day.

The event was organized by Sidy Ndao, a Senegalese-born engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is on a mission to help further science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM skills, in West Africa.

In America, the need for more STEM education has become a stump speech delivered by many economists and business leaders. They emphasize that improving these skills will help the United States create more jobs, compete better globally and increase its economic growth.

The same is true, Dr. Ndao said, in Senegal and across West Africa, where incorporating STEM education can help set a course to improve everything from sanitation systems to agriculture and can create jobs in a place with soaring unemployment.

“There’s a lot of work to be done here,” said Dr. Ndao, 33.

It is not that schools in the region do not emphasize math and science already. The all-girls school at the competition, the Mariama Bâ de Gorée School, is known as one of the best math schools in Senegal. Though some schools outside Dakar, the capital, do not even have electricity, many private schools in the city have computer labs, include math and science clubs, and offer more technology courses than in the past.

To read the rest of this article, published in the New York Times, please click here.