Inspiring Children to Learn Robotics, Austin, Texas
To address a declining trend in the number of science and engineering majors in the United States, Robotic Clubs have sprung up in many elementary schools in recent years to inspire young people to develop an early interest in robotics engineering and technology. Such was the goal of a handful of Sai Center members from the Austin, Texas Sai Center who helped create a robotics program for 4th and 5th graders at two local schools: McBee Elementary School and Bagdad Elementary School. It all began when Lucy Duncan, the principal of McBee Elementary School, approached the Austin Sathya Sai Center in 2005 for help with tutoring the students in her school, 97% of whom came from low-income and non-English speaking homes. Sai volunteers began helping about thirty-five to seventy children in various subjects such as Math, Science, Chess, Computers and English. In 2012, they were similarly asked to tutor about twenty-five to forty students in Bagdad Elementary School in Austin.
The tutoring then expanded in spring 2012, when we approached both schools with a proposal to set up a Robotics Club. My son, Sailesh Kumar, a high school senior, was passionate about robotics, some thing he has pursued since the fifth grade, and was eager to pass it on. The schools welcomed the idea of supporting their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program in an exciting, hands-on way. It would also improve the future of these at-risk students and get them motivated about school! Moreover, there were community resources we could tap into; the National Instruments Corporation that produced robotic kits was headquartered in Austin, and they offered a one-day training in robotics each year. My son, Sailesh, and I attended the training and began integrating the robotics program into the tutoring program at the two schools. In 2012, Sailesh coached two teams, one from each of the two schools. He had to juggle his schedule during the senior year of high school to find the time to volunteer four days a week. It was amazing how many things Divine Grace aligned to make the project possible.
First, there was the question of finding the time to teach. He had to make a few sacrifices. He dropped a college level physics class, which he later picked up as independent study and passed. He also had to drop his orchestra to a lower level so that he could arrive at the schools by 3 p.m. Then, there was the question of transportation. A Sai Center member offered to drive Sailesh to Bagdad Elementary School (45 minutes away) two days a week. Subsequently, one of our neighbors offered to drive him to McBee Elementary School on the other two days. It seemed that once Sailesh took the first step in earnest and made the personal sacrifices to get the program started, the Divine Hand stepped in and arranged the rest, and provided all the support he needed to make sure everything else fell in place.
Regarding the experience, Sailesh shared, “Teaching robotics was always an idea, a dream, but it never took off. When the principals agreed to it that year, it was a dream come true. I have always been instilled with the importance of service and volunteer at soup kitchens and other activities. But robotics was something I had pursued as a passion from very early on in my life. So, I was so grateful for the opportunity to pull them together and use my passion in service of helping others."
When Sailesh moved to college the following year, I took over coaching the teams along with other Sai volunteers. We were greatly helped when a Sai devotee who was an IBM employee, secured a $3,000 grant and procured robotics kits from IBM for both teams. Later on, we were able to procure more kits and grants from high tech companies such as 3M, Intel and a non-profit group called Skillpoint Alliance. These grants paid for additional expenditures like team shirts, registration fees for competitions, transportation, and food for the team meetings. Sai Center volunteers generously provided the snacks (cookies, granola bars, fruit snacks, etc.) for all team meetings as the children would stay back till late evening to work on their projects. Everything just fell into place; I felt immense gratitude for the Divine Grace that helped us every step of the way!
The donors who came forward were inspired when they saw the extent to which we were helping the children from very low-income neighborhoods. They were, in particular, inspired by the efforts of young Sailesh, who had spent four afternoons a week at the schools. I spent time enlightening the donors about the impoverished situation and tough challenges these students face. For example, the family of one of the students could not afford their own vehicle so the student’s teacher would drive her home after the club. Despite all these odds, it was inspiring to see the students persevere hard and be so committed to learning.
So far, the creation of the teams in 2012 has met with success. They took part in the FIRST LEGO League competition in Central Texas in December 2012. The Bagdad Robotics Club, or the Bobcats – named for their school mascot – had become so popular that there was a waiting list of students eager to join. In 2013, we added an additional team to meet popular demand, and expanded the robotics program to yet another low-income school, Allison Elementary School. Most of the children were very grateful for the opportunity, and so were the parents. The schools were just thrilled for the opportunities afforded to their students, which would not have been possible otherwise.
According to Bagdad Elementary School Principal, there are more than 400 students participating in after-school clubs and she feels volunteers are needed for organizing and sustaining them. Such activities will help these economically disadvantaged students to be at par in academic achievement with those students from other schools in more affluent school districts. Volunteers are important to ensure smooth running of the extracurricular activities in schools. The Sai Region 10 President at that time, Alejandro Grana, who also resides in Austin, believes that their support is needed to kindle early interest in learning. Grana encourages high school students to take up tutoring elementary students as part of community service and feels strongly that such service is more valuable than cleaning a park or a stadium. Over time, these high school students learn to engage in service learning and community service projects, develop leadership and citizenship skills, and numerous life skills.
Sailesh reflected on his experience being involved in the Robotics Club: “I had helped tutor kids, but had never taught a class on my own. Robotics is my life, so I drew on what I was taught about robotics in 5th grade. If we can channel these kids’ enthusiasm into robotics, we could be shaping them to become our nation’s future engineers! Robotics has really inspired the kids. They were even more motivated when there was an article about them in a community newspaper, the Impact News. When you ask them now what they want to be when they grow up, they will answer without skipping a beat "An engineer!" You get them in the 4th grade and just plant the seed. The moment I pulled out the robot kit, they were hooked.
I’ve always loved helping others. The robotics club has renewed in me the love of teaching. It’s one thing to make yourself an expert, but it is something completely different to pass on that expertise to others. Teaching is the most rewarding thing one can do. I am inspired to do something in the future that involves teaching, whether it is as a robotics coach or in some other way.”
A special memory stands out. One of the robotics team was made up of all girls who were in the 25th spot (total 26 teams) at the competition before the finals. Sailesh gave them a pep talk and encouraged them to do the necessary tweaking of the robot and make adjustments to the programs. They did that and went to the finals. All of the programs worked and they jumped to 12th place. The girls were so ecstatic that everyone in the gym could hear their shrill screams of delight. It is not that they won but they felt they had accomplished something they had never thought they could. Seeing the joyous pride and exuberance in their faces was indeed very fulfilling!
This has been such a rewarding service project – indeed, the more we do, the more we want to do and we have been actively looking for volunteers and donations to expand. Today we have three schools and four teams just in Robotics. I feel blessed and lucky to be able to do this. It also makes me realize there is such potential and talent in every child, and it is truly a blessing to help each child, no matter how seemingly hopeless their situation, encourage them to realize their full potential and provide them with the resources to do so. Helping them all is truly like serving God. And I feel I am truly able to understand Baba’s teachings on the value of service in our lives.
Mr. Bala Kumar
Sathya Sai Center of Austin, TX.