Robotics explosion: Where do universities stand?


Earlier this year, MTN Uganda announced that it was set to rollout mobile money self-service ATM machines.

The innovation is not entirely new. A pilot of the project had been tested by the telecom company when it partnered with a number of banks to allow their customers deposit and withdraw on and from their phones at the different bank machines.

But, when actual ATM machines belonging to telecom companies began hitting the streets of Accra, Ghana, it became clear that this was no myth.

Of course, a bitter reality that just as mobile money had shaken the banking sector, agents now offering the service could be facing a major disruption.

For instance, once the convenient machines are spread out in the country, with the compliment of many Inter-Switch machines that are already doing MTN transactions, it is believed that almost 20,000 mobile money agents will be out of work.

And yet, the tech age is only just kicking in. World over, innovations such as, ATM machines have disrupted banking, Goggle is seeking to disrupt the transport industry with self-driving cars, mobile phones made physical mail irrelevant and just within the mobile phone world, apps such as, WhatsApp, Viber and Skype have made phone calls and text messages useless.

The biggest innovations, though, could be the eAmazon has for some time been teasing out drones to deliver items, a job previously done by humans.

Uganda ready for tech shakeup?
However, even when such an innovation directly calls home, there is no sign that local institutions are ready for the tech shakeup.

Solomon King Benge, a co-founder of Fundi Bots, a Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) intervention that teaches robotics, says as long as universities are still focused on theories Uganda is doomed.

“The way sciences are being taught in Uganda makes students learn lots of written matter about how things are done but without giving them a chance to experience them. The sad thing is that even when there is a practical lesson, only a few students get an actual feel of the specimen.”

Fundi Bots has been inspiring people with practical training that has allowed many to create robots and code. “The training makes learning fun, and this is something you cannot find in a university. Right from high school, science subjects are made complicated and difficult just by the way they are taught.”

Rogers Niwagaba, an information technology second-year student and one of the many university interns at Fundi Bots, says interacting with the practical part of what they have covered as theory is breath-taking.

“This training simplifies many things that seemed almost impossible in class. I cannot say that I will go back to campus the same.”

More practical lessons are needed
And yet, the Fundi Bots intervention is only just one of the few and is not accessed by all students of STEM in Uganda.

David Okwi of Africa’s Talking, a mobile technology company, says the problem lies in the way students are taught. ‘The motivation is to graduate and get a good degree.”

According to the 2016 Omaswa Report, Taskforce on job evaluation, reorganisation of the staff structure and financing of Makerere University, much as employers are interested in handson graduates with the right attitude and problem solving skills, most of the applicants they get barely have practical experience even with their impressive transcripts.

The report further decries the fact that even though there is a provision for tutorials as a teaching method, students leave the university without participating in any. Part of the report reads: Facilities in the laboratories are inadequate. Courses were structured in such a way that a student would be required to undertake a prescribed number of laboratory practical classes.

Yet students leave after only one practical class instead of the prescribed number which leaves gaps in the coverage of the curriculum. Students confessed to the Taskforce that they are going to be half- baked.

The problems of Makerere University almost mirror those of Ugandan as a whole. Benge says that while growing up, sciences are always presented as complicated and yet, once things are broken down to what people can touch and do, they would be the easiest.

Innovation labs are the way to go
Hassan Ssematimba of the International University of East Africa, notes that the university decided to have courses around STEM as their niche because of the potential the sector holds.

“However, we also knew that the key to having this work was through practical lessons.

To attack the problem of Uganda’s education being mostly theoretical, we cre-ated an innovation laboratory that allows students to implement what they have studied and to create new things. We have students who have recycled plastic to create robotics bodies while building tractors and machines.”

Ssematimba says that Uganda is ready for the robotic explosion although some elements keep people behind. For instance, he says that with all the university is doing, it keeps a low intake of students to make sure that all those enrolled get a hands-on treatment.

“If we bring in more students than we can take, some of them will end up just looking at others doing things. We will end up not achieving what we intended to achieve.”

To beat that, Benge says it is important to get the students when they are young. At Fundi Bots, there is a class that introduces children to robotics, opening their minds to the different things they could venture into much later in their lives.

“When they are young, they will be fasci-nated by the thought of creating a robot. Our intention though, is not to make them robotic builders but to open up their minds. Surprisingly, by the time they leave, many of them are not interested in robots. They want to venture into coding and building applications.”

There is hope
Many Ugandans, though, are hampered by poor funding, and this has kept them at the level of theoretical teaching. However, strides are being made to enhance creation and technological innovation in country.

For instance, in 2016, a ministry of science, technology and innovations was formed with responsibilities of planning, coordinat-ing and implementing government efforts to encourage scientific and technological innovations in all sectors of the economy.

Robotics is a production-based learning module. Students have the opportunity to create something tangible and make it perform the actions that they program it to do.

Jobs in the STEM field are the fastest growing careers and industries such as, the drone industry, has grown dramatically and rapidly.

Growing industries are going to need people who can come up with new and innovative ideas, and be equipped with the knowledge to design and create the technology needed.

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