Indian school kids are learning to build robots with DIY kits and online courses

The new kid in school.
The new kid in school.
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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Fourteen-year-old Hargobind Khurana had always been fascinated with computers, electronics, and robots. Since his school curriculum didn’t offer much in this regard, he’d spend hours on the internet trying to learn the basics. But even online, the information was often unorganised, with no one to explain complex ideas to him.

Lately, though, Khurana has been learning more systematically after enrolling with SP Robotic Works (SPRW), one of the several educational tech startups in India. These firms work to bridge a critical gap in conventional education, teaching technologies such as robotics, the internet of things (IoT), and virtual reality (VR). “The course is very one-to-one,” his mother Meenu told Quartz, describing the structured online classes that include videos and other learning tools. “Although it is online, it is as if (a teacher) is teaching you.”

Although robotics is a broad concept including areas such as automation, embedded systems, mechanical engineering, IoT, etc, these ed-tech startups start with the basics. They design small kits containing breadboards, wires, sensors, and other such components, and get children to play with them. They then move on to teaching the children basic programming and concepts in physics, and gradually help them develop their own robots. These could be ones that merely follow a line or react to light, or more complex mobile phone-controlled ones that can perform certain tasks.

And these courses could be either online, at school, or outside the classroom. Chennai-based SPRW, for instance, runs online-only courses, assisted by their AI-driven chat bot. ”The bot serves as a personal trainer and asks them questions, understands whether they’re having difficulties, repeats concepts in different ways,” said Sneha Priya, who started the company with her husband in 2012.

Students can register and purchase kits, priced between Rs5,000 ($77) and Rs15,000 ($230), and learn the basics through the videos provided to them. Since June 2016, when it began holding classes, SPRW has sold over 5,000 kits, racking up revenues of over Rs1.5 crore, Priya said. Backed by angel investor groups like Chennai Angels and the Indian Angel Network, SPRW will soon also begin teaching virtual reality and image processing.

While SPRW’s focus is on online training, there are others that prefer in-person sessions.

“In the classroom, you get to mingle with 50-60 people from different backgrounds, and if you have an issue, someone is there with you. The community is very active,” said Pawan Gnanaraj, who heads the robotics and operations team at Chennai-based Lema Labs. The IIT Madras-incubated startup runs a six-month programme that includes six weeks of classes and four months of project work. It has trained over 4,500 persons, including school and college students, since 2013.

Pune-based Robokidz, on the other hand, partners with schools and sets up labs for a fee. Classes are conducted once a week in schools either by Robokidz trainers or by school teachers trained by it. Giving students such exposure early on also helps them make more informed career choices, said Sagar Sanghvi, founder of Robokidz. The five-year-old company is currently working with over 300 schools across India.

“IoT and artificial intelligence and robotics are now coming into (the) mainstream…so in that sense its important that children are knowledgeable about these things because tomorrow they’re going to drive cars that are intelligent and have buildings that are IoT-enabled,” Narayanan Ramaswamy, a partner at KPMG in India who focuses on education and skill development, told Quartz.

The end product

A major attraction of these courses is that the students’ work is often showcased outside the classroom, or sometimes even put to commercial use.

“We thought if we can provide…industrial opportunities to people when they’re learning, their learning gets doubled,” Priya of SPRW said. Her startup lets students help with the projects the company takes on—some of the recent ones being creating robots for a farming company that helps weed agricultural fields, robots to clean solar panels for Tata Power Solar, and a warehouse robot used by firms like Qualcomm.

Students aged 12 years and above have also independently funded and built products, including a beach-cleaning robot called Swachh Bot and BOB, which helps serves dishes at a restaurant.

Robokidz, which teaches children aged between eight and 16, gets its students to make miniature cars with gear mechanisms, robots based on programming and sensors, or those that can be controlled using smartphones connected on wifi networks. It then invites students to participate in its annual competition, the Robotics Premier League.

However, challenges remain. Finding trainers, for instance. Also, to keep the children interested, they must ensure that the curricula is neither boring nor difficult. Then, there is the need for patience. “They (children) don’t want to listen to the theory and just want to jump to making the things,” Robokidz’s Sanghvi said. “So once they make it and are happy, we have to make them understand the science behind it.”

Overall, though, the need for this start up-led exposure to robotics is clear. “Our schools lack technology while everyone out there is using a smartphone. Technology is rapidly changing and the education space has lot to catch up. The learning skills required for future innovators and researchers require seeding at a young age,” Prahlad Vadakkepat, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told Quartz. “Technological literacy is essential to live in future societies.”