Sunday April 21, 2019

Robotics Competition: Robots built by team of Young People Promotes Innovation for Economic Growth in Africa

Organizers of the annual robotics competition say the goal is to encourage African governments and private donors to invest more in science and math education throughout the continent.

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Dakar, Senegal (May 19, 2017) - Rokyaha Cisse, 17, from Dakar, adjusts her team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal. Their robot sends sounds into the ground, which detect the presence of metal.

Dakara, May 24, 2017: The hum of tiny machines fills a fenced-off obstacle course, as small robots compete to gather mock natural resources such as diamonds and gold.

The robots were built by teams of young people gathered in Dakar for the annual Pan-African Robotics Competition.

They’re among the several hundred middle school and high school students from Senegal and surrounding countries who spent last week in Dakar building robots. Organizers of the annual robotics competition say the goal is to encourage African governments and private donors to invest more in science and math education throughout the continent.

Marieme Toure, from Dakar, adjusts her team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R.Shryock/VOA)
Marieme Toure, from Dakar, adjusts her team’s robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R.Shryock/VOA)

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‘Made in Africa’

The event’s founder, Sidy Ndao, says this year’s theme is “Made in Africa,” and focuses on how robotics developed in Africa could help local economies.

“We have noticed that most countries that have developed in the likes of the United States have based their development on manufacturing and industrialization, and African countries on the other hand are left behind in this race,” Ndao said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to inspire the kids to tell them about the importance of manufacturing, the importance of industry, and the importance of creation and product development.”

During the week, the students were split into three groups.

The first group worked on robots that could automate warehouses. The second created machines that could mine natural resources, and the third group was tasked to come up with a new African product and describe how to build it.

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Aboubacar Savage, 14, from Gambia looks at a computer at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)
Aboubacar Savage, 14, from Gambia looks at a computer at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)

Building a robot a team effort

Seventeen-year-old Rokyaha Cisse from Senegal helped her team develop a robot that sends sound waves into the ground to detect the presence of metals and then start digging.

Cisse says it is very interesting and fun, and they are learning new things, as well as having their first opportunity to handle robots.

As part of a younger team, Aboubacar Savage from Gambia said their robot communicates with computers.

“It is a robot that whatever you draw into the computer, it translates it and draws it in real life,” Savage said. “It is kind of hard. And there is so much competition, but we are trying. I have learned how to assemble a robot. I have learned how to program into a computer.”

The event’s founder, Ndao, is originally from Senegal, but is now a professor at the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln College of Engineering in the United States.

“I have realized how much the kids love robotics and how much they love science,” Ndao said “You can tell because when it is time for lunch, we have to convince them to actually leave, and then [when] it is time to go home, nobody wants to leave.”

Mohamed Sidy, 14 years old and from Dakar, holds up his team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)
Mohamed Sidy, 14 years old and from Dakar, holds up his team’s robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)

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Outsourced jobs cost Africa billions

A winning team was named in each category, but Ndao hopes the real winners will be science and technology in Africa.

The organizers of the Next Einstein Forum, which held its annual global gathering last year in Senegal, said Africa is currently missing out on $4 billion a year by having to outsource jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to expatriates.

Ndao said African governments and private investors need to urgently invest more on education in those fields, in particular at the university level. (VOA)

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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

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“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)