Newspaper article International New York Times

Robot Boot Camp in Senegal ; A Nebraska Professor Returns to His Homeland to Teach Children Science

Newspaper article International New York Times

Robot Boot Camp in Senegal ; A Nebraska Professor Returns to His Homeland to Teach Children Science

Article excerpt

A Nebraska professor who returns home to Senegal to start a robotics competition hopes to instill a drive in schoolchildren to improve their world.

One robot slammed into some blocks and nearly fell to the floor. Another sideswiped a wall. Yet another spun in dizzying circles.

So when the robot built by students from an all-girls school finally navigated the twists of the maze, flawlessly rounding every corner and touching every required flag, the crowd went nuts.

The girls were among students from 25 schools who gathered in Dakar to compete in the second annual Pan-African Robotics Competition.

For five days, in a city where horses and carts are still fixtures on the many unpaved roads, boys and girls from sixth grade to high school hunched over laptops and tablets at a camp, entering code to guide their small blue robots through a labyrinth meant to test their skills in a competition on the final day.

The event was organized by Sidy Ndao, a Senegalese-born engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who is on a mission to help further science, technology, engineering and math education, known as STEM skills, in West Africa.

In America, the need for more STEM education has become a stump speech delivered by many economists and business leaders. They emphasize that improving these skills will help the United States create more jobs, compete better globally and increase its economic growth.

The same is true, Dr. Ndao said, in Senegal and across West Africa, where incorporating STEM education can help set a course to improve everything from sanitation systems to agriculture and can create jobs in a place with soaring unemployment.

"There's a lot of work to be done here," said Dr. Ndao, 33.

It is not that schools in the region do not emphasize math and science already. The all-girls school at the competition, the Mariama Ba de Goree School, is known as one of the best math schools in Senegal. Though some schools outside Dakar, the capital, do not even have electricity, many private schools in the city have computer labs, include math and science clubs, and offer more technology courses than in the past.

But Dr. Ndao said the schools sometimes emphasized rote memorization rather than focusing on contextual learning. Students do not connect theories they learn with practical experiences, he argued.

"We have kids brought in from math and science schools, and when they see an airplane flying, they think it's magic," Dr. Ndao said. "But if you give them any math problem, they can solve it."

Dr. Ndao went to school in Senegal until his teenage years, struggling through elementary school. But something clicked in junior high, and he decided math was his thing.

Dr. Ndao's parents wanted a better education for him, so he went to New York, where he lived with a relative and enrolled in high school. Dr. Ndao said he had quickly risen to the top of his high school class and received a scholarship to City College of New York, where he studied mechanical engineering.

But there was a catch, he said: He was in the United States illegally. …

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