Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Deserted Strip Mall, Mexico Moves to Seed a High-Tech Future

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Deserted Strip Mall, Mexico Moves to Seed a High-Tech Future

Article excerpt

An 11-year-old girl with a slicked-back ponytail stands at the head of a classroom here and grins as she displays a small prototype of her latest revolutionary idea: a four-wheeled contraption with a giant tube that can swivel 360 degrees. Its purpose? To drive through her neighborhood's streets and vacuum up trash and litter.

Modern tales of invention and entrepreneurship often start in the family garage. But here in Mexico, it might just be a brightly lit classroom tucked into a deserted strip mall that produces the next generation of innovators.

This is robotics 101 - launched in February through Mexico Conectado, a government-funded network of digitally-connected community centers that focus on new technology. The free courses for kids between the ages of 8 and 13 mix design, scientific theory, and execution in at least one city in every state and the federal district. So far, 2,623 kids have participated in a beginner or intermediate course, and anyone can sign up.

For Mexico, it's a new step - and potential model - in trying to address glaring barriers to increasing the nation's international competitiveness, particularly in sectors like aerospace and information technology. Some 40 percent of students drop out before completing high school, and about two-thirds of the population doesn't have access to the Internet, creating a gaping digital divide. Even among the kids in this course, about half don't have computers at home, according to program staff.

Beyond the bid to develop technological savvy, classes like this may have other unintended positive effects that could change Mexico's competitive landscape.

"Digital literacy is a foundational skill, like mathematics," says Fernando M. Reimers, a Harvard University professor of education who focuses on innovation.

"But beyond knowledge of a discipline, you need to know how to apply that knowledge in order to solve problems," Mr. Reimers says - something the robotics classes appear to do by having the kids pinpoint a problem in their communities and dream up solutions.

A growing disconnectIf such efforts gain traction, they could boost an education system that is struggling to stay relevant. A landmark education reform, passed in 2013, promises to invest more resources into the nation's neediest schools and create a more merit- based system for the hiring and promotion of teachers. But many consider it primarily a labor reform, and it has hit a number of roadblocks, most recently the brief suspension of teacher evaluations, a cornerstone of the effort.

The robotics courses, however, include many elements Mexico has so far been unable to deliver on in its public education system: small class sizes with lots of personal attention, an emphasis on teamwork, the application of theories through hands-on projects, and encouragement of independent thought and creation. …

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