Today Mr. Narayanan and I went to the Vana Vani School, also on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. It is also a K-12 school. The Vana Vani School has a robotics club that starts in fifth grade and goes up to tenth grade. They have been using the yellow RCX robotics system (it is almost 10 years old). The lead teacher, Mrs. Lalitha Bhaskaran, told us that the team had recently entered an Indian competition where they came in second place.
A few days earlier, the Vice-Principal, Mr. Xavier Sagayanathan, who also teaches computer science to high schoolers, had offered to let us address the entire sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes in the central courtyard of the school. However, they did not have an auditorium of the proper size with AV equipment available. Since we wanted to give the children something tangible to look at, and not just a speech, he suggested that it might be better to do a presentation to the children in the robotics club at the school. So we met with about 50 children in grades 5-8. The high schoolers in the robotics club could not attend because of a time conflict with their quarterly exams.
The students were very interested in the presentation even though they were not new to robotics. After a brief overview, we had an interactive discussion with them about all the different skills needed for doing a good job in a competition. We also showed them our rover and a few sample program in which it detected and climbed a ridge and picked up a toy cat I had borrowed from my aunt in Chennai (to substitute for the Water Ice and Helium 3 models, which we had forgotten to bring).
The kids asked a lot of questions about the way our robot worked. As before, we invited them to write a short essay (200-300 words) on one of three topics along with a token prize:
1. How can robots help India’s space program?
2. If you could design a robot, what would your robot do, and how?
3. How can robots make your home life easier?
The children seemed eager to participate. Overall we felt that the kids we met in both these schools were really smart and interested in science, technology, engineering and math. That should not be so surprising since they are surrounded by some of India’s best engineers on the IIT campus.
We are going to work over the next year to create a local support system for the students to help them explore the world of robotics competitions. Hopefully we will see some Vana Vani students in next year’s Moonbots competition.