/ 19 December 2020

Kasi kids who love to build robots

Adroit: Children at primary schools in Katlehong, near Johannesburg, are working in teams to harness arcane cybernetic powers. (Ropafadzo Chiradza/Katatorn Prod)

Township children are being primed to participate in the artificial intelligence industries of the future through an extramural robotics and coding programme that rivals those at private schools. 

More than 60 children in grades five to seven at nine primary schools in Katlehong, Gauteng, have, since 2016, been part of a programme facilitated by the JumpStart Foundation, which aims to “transform underperforming classrooms into centres of maths and science excellence”, according to its website. 

According to a report by India-based research firm Markets and Markets, artificial intelligence will grow from $1.4-billion in 2017 to $8.8-billion by 2022. 

Daniella Lekgau, the project manager and head facilitator of the programme, said the nine school principals chose the learners based on academic prowess in the field of mathematics. 

The learners are divided into smaller groups at Tamaho Primary School and have lessons matched to their grades.

“The nomination process requires principals to explain to parents that this fantastic opportunity will shape their children’s future, but that they will be getting home later than usual after school, and that they will have to make a financial investment in their child’s transport fees — from their child’s school to Tamaho and home again afterwards,” said Lekgau. 

“So, in simple terms, I’d say the principals go for learners who are interested in robotics and coding and whose parents are willing and able to pay for their transportation. 

“Our learners are taught four things: how to build robots following instructions and how to build robots using their creative minds.

“They are taught how to programme robots using block-based programming software and how to programme robots using text-based programming languages.They are taught how to apply the soft skills [such as] leadership, communication, social engagement, and how to share, and, lastly, they’re taught and allowed to have lots of fun while learning.” 

Lekgau added that she oversaw three tutors and two coaches in the robotics programme. The tutors completed the i-Set Robotics: Components and Pedagogy short course at Unisa. 

“The tutors — like Pule Morobi and Given Msibi — and the coaches are Katlehong matriculants who started as foundation phase tutors on the NumberSense programme,” Lekgau said. 

The NumberSense programme, which teaches learners up to grade  3, promotes optimal mathematical competence. 

“In January 2020, we registered about 60 tutors for the NumberSense programme operating in Katlehong. However, another five schools in Ekurhuleni South will join the programme in January 2021, so this number will go up to about 70. 

“Some tutors have commenced tertiary education and some are awarded StudyAssist bursaries funded by our sponsors,” Lekgau said.

The Mail & Guardian went with Sthembiso “Zondo” Nkosi to fetch his 11-year-old son, Enzokuhle Ngcaku, from his extramural lessons. 

Enzokuhle will be a grade 6 learner at Monde Primary School next year and has regularly featured in the top two positions in his grades. He beamed with pride during one of the trips to his coding classes, thrilled at the opportunity to learn what had been a foreign skill for him before the JumpStart programme. 

The school is the alma mater of Jacob Dlamini, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University in the United States and the author of Native Nostalgia and Askari.  

Enzokuhle gushed: “I love coding, and I get to join grades higher than mine because I’m doing well. I hope I can do more robotics and coding when I’m in high school and even after that.” 

His father said he was working towards securing a bursary at an elite school that offered a coding curriculum because he believes Enzokuhle was a future innovator. 

Lekgau said they were hoping for sponsorship to continue beyond next year, but that they could do little for children who wanted to pursue robotics in high school. 

“The least we can do for these learners applying for bursaries to private high schools is to guide them on the application process and write letters of recommendation in support of their applications,” she said. 

In October, the programme won the MTN Foundation Award for Social Change. Congratulating JumpStart, MTN Foundation’s Angela Maloka said: “The judges felt that the intervention was designed with a high level of consultation and is focused on a clear problem, for which the root cause has been clearly analysed and unpacked.”