Primary school pupils learn to code using robotics

EDRO instructor Jane Scott with pupils, Michael Cloete and Aisha Jacobs.

Last year, South Africa placed 138 out of 140 in terms of maths and science education, with only Egypt and Paraguay ranking lower.

The findings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report painted yet another bleak picture for the country, as it is well known these subjects are crucial to the development of new technologies.

Today, it is the ability to program and code that often shapes a successful career path, and for South Africa’s youngsters, it is apparent that something needs to be done to turn their flagging maths and science fortunes around.

Fortunately, that need has not been lost on Woodstock-based EDRO robotics, which, this year, introduced a programme at 10 Cape Town schools in which primary and high school pupils learn to code using robotics.

In the lessons, pupils work through a unique curriculum of problems. Those new to robotics start solving basic problems with the “Parallax S2” robot, which is loaded with a pen and programmed to draw intricate patterns using a drag and drop Graphical User Interface.

This week, the Tatler was invited to attend one of the classes held at St Agnes Dominican Convent Primary School in Woodstock.

The second “intake” of St Agnes’ pupils this year, the Grade 6s and 7s moved quickly to their laptops on which they would write various codes to instruct their robots to move in different directions.

These were then placed on large white sheets of paper to draw shapes.

While a limit of 16 pupils is imposed on each class, there was still much interest from those who had not registered as they clamoured for an opportunity to code like their peers. Clearly the programme was having the desired effect.

EDRO co-founder Christina Clucas began the programme after seeing her partner and two sons building a robot at home. It struck her that children were very engaged in the process, prompting her to start the venture.

“In the United States and Europe, robotics is a big part of education but not so in South Africa. But it is a very tangible way to learn maths and science. Seeing the robot moving according to the code that has been written makes it very real,” she said.

“The future is written in coding. Even doctors use technology; you see robots in surgery now so you can only imagine what it is going to be like in the future.”

During each session, the children are provided a worksheet on which a specific coding challenge is tabled. On the day of the Tatler’s visit, they were required to work out the diameter of a circle to be drawn by their robots.

School principal Alfonso Louw was thrilled the programme had proved so successful among his pupils.

“I always say we are not exposing our children enough to technology. What is especially pleasing is that we are seeing a nice gender mix in the children in the classes. Robotics is not only the preserve of boys” Mr Louw said.

“But I think the most pleasing thing is that we are giving our children the opportunity to compete on an even playing field. Our pupils come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. This programme is allowing them to learn skills that are being taught at the wealthier schools, so they will have the basics needed to go on to the next level.”

Mr Louw added “not once” had he had a negative report about the classes.

“They are really enjoying what they do.”