by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Ntombikayise Banda (@ntombibanda) is striving to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects more accessible to South African learners through low-cost robots that may be programmed in local languages. Her efforts were recognised with a seed grant at the SAB Foundation Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards in October 2019. We caught up with Banda to find out what’s potting with her platform, FundaBotix.
Q5: First of all, please tell us about FundaBotix: how does it work?
Ntombikayise Banda: The FundaBot is a low-cost robotics platform designed to equip learners with the skills of the future, and to change perceptions of maths and science as difficult and/or boring subjects. The robotics platform provides learners with the opportunity to develop engineering skills, such as programming, mechanics and electronics, and to gain exposure to other fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT). The accompanying curriculum and activities are designed such that learners are required to make use of maths and science concepts to build the robots and program them to solve various tasks, thereby making the learning of maths and science fun, engaging, and tangible.
The robotics platform is modular in design, making it extensible with various IoT sensors, such as light, temperature, and moisture sensors. The platform may be programmed using mobile devices and PCs, making the technology easily accessible in areas with little computing infrastructure. To decrease the barriers to coding for youngsters, a visual drag-and-drop interface is used, and allows for the robots to be programmed in African languages such as isiZulu and Sesotho. The support for African languages ensures that learners can have a better understanding of technical terms and concepts.
Q5: What inspired you to build this robotic platform?
NB: I founded an NGO called SciExplo in 2013 to promote science fields to learners from previously disadvantaged communities. Over the years, we reached out to learners from 18 township schools in Tshwane, exposing them to fields such as aeronautical engineering, biotechnology, robotics and cryptography. A lot of the learners expressed interest in owning robotics kits.
At the time, we were importing our robotics kits from the UK, which was expensive and thus inaccessible to many of the learners. This prompted me to design a low-cost robotics platform to meet this rising interest and need. I also felt that minimal exposure to robotics was not sufficient for nurturing innovation, and that it was very important for learners to be able to continue their learning at home. This led to the birth of FundaBotix, which aims to provide convenience, inclusive education, and access to low-cost but powerful technology.
Q5: Could you talk us through the development process?
NB: At the core of the robotics platform is a low-end microcontroller, chosen with cost in mind, but it has memory space limitations. Therefore, FundaBotix had to develop proprietary firmware to innovatively translate user code into a much-smaller memory footprint. Our first prototype was made from cardboard paper with a prototyping electronics board. A number of iterations (and months) later, the robotics platform looks a lot more professional, with the product launch planned for early 2020.
In order to test various aspects of the prototype and curriculum, we partnered with the Mae Jemison Science Reading Room based in Mamelodi, [Tshwane], for running pilot studies. Involving learners early on in our journey helped us prioritise ease-of-use, functionality and learning gains. In March 2019, FundaBotix was incubated by TuksNovation, a business incubator based at the University of Pretoria, providing the company with much-needed business support and mentorship. FundaBotix [also] recently received a Seed Grant at the 2019 SAB Foundation Social Innovation and Disability Empowerment Awards, which will be of great assistance in moving the project forward.
Q5: Are you involved in any other social innovation projects?
NB: At this stage, my focus is on FundaBotix to ensure the success of the project and a wide reach of our product and technology. However, I believe that my passion for technology and education will see me create more products in the near future that address the education challenges in our country.
Q5: What can we, as individuals, do to break down linguistic and digital barriers to learning in South Africa?
NB: I believe that access and exposure are the two main ingredients in reducing the linguistic and digital barriers to learning. In our individual capacities, I believe that we should either donate to or become part of movements that are actively translating content into various languages to enable easier understanding of learning materials.
Removing digital barriers at its core requires access to computing infrastructure. As active citizens, we can play an active role by being guardians of our alma maters. If each former student contributed monetarily or in kind towards the upgrade of school facilities (and upskilling of teachers), I believe the digital gap would be reduced drastically, moving the country towards equal education.
Other than that, we can impact lives by donating our time and/or resources to education outreach programmes. One important principle I advocate, when bringing technology to learners, is to encourage learners to not only become consumers of technology but to be producers of it as well. Therefore, technology should be used to support learning, and to nurture entrepreneurial and innovative mindsets.
- SAB Foundation: sabfoundation.co.za/news-1/2019/9/27/sab-foundation-social-innovation-amp-disability-empowerment-awards-finalist-profiles
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her regular column “Q5” hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with inspiring professionals in diversive fields.