To address a declining trend in the number of science and engineering majors in the United States, Robotic Clubs have sprung up in many elementary schools in recent years to inspire young people to develop an early interest in robotics engineering and technology. Such was the goal of a handful of Sai Center members from the Austin, Texas Sai Center who helped create a robotics program for 4th and 5th graders at two local schools: McBee Elementary School and Bagdad Elementary School.
The opportunity to implement these teams actually grew from a seed that had been planted years prior, when McBee Elementary School Principal Lucy Duncan approached the Sai Organization. She came to the organization in 2005 seeking help for her school, where 97 percent of the kids were from low-income families, most of the children had parents with two jobs and many of them could not speak English. Since that day, the volunteers from Austin Sai Center have been tutoring between thirty-five to seventy children in any given semester in various subjects such as Math, Science, Chess, Computers, English, etc. In 2012, we were similarly asked to tutor about twenty-five to forty students in the Bagdad Elementary School in Austin.
The tutoring then expanded once again when, in spring 2012, I approached the principals about starting a Robotics Club. My son Sailesh Kumar, an Austin ISD high school senior, was passionate about robotics. He became interested in them in the fifth grade, and wanted to pass down his passion to a younger generation of learners. The schools were interested because it would support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) learning in an exciting, hands-on way. They welcomed the idea and said they would supply the students, provided we found the teachers and the funds. It was a golden opportunity to improve the future of these at-risk students, and get them motivated about school! National Instruments Corporation, an American company headquartered in Austin, Texas, and a producer of automated test equipment, virtual instrumentation software, and the Robotics Kits needed by the teams, offers a one-day training in robotics each year. My son Sailesh, and I attended the training and then began integrating the robotics program into the tutoring service at the two elementary schools.
For the 2012 year, Sailesh was coach for the two teams, one from each of the two elementary schools. He had to juggle his schedule senior year of high school to be able to volunteer at both schools four days a week. It was amazing how many things Divine Grace aligned to make the project possible. First there was the question of Sailesh’s finding the time to teach. He had wanted to do this for a long time, but to make it possible he had to drop a college level physics class, which he later studied on his own and passed! He also had to drop into a lower level orchestra so that he could get to the elementary schools by 3 p.m. all four days a week. Then there was the question of transportation. A Sai Center member, who owns his own business, was able to drive Sailesh to Bagdad Elementary School (45 minutes away) two days a week and help him. Subsequently, one of Sailesh’s neighbors offered to drive him to McBee Elementary School the other two days.
Regarding the experience, Sailesh shared, “Teaching robotics was always an idea, a dream, but it never went through. When the principals agreed to this idea that year, I thought I may not get the chance to do this later, depending on where I end up going to college, so I had to take the opportunity to do it. For me this was so important because I have grown up with Sai Baba’s teaching about the importance of service, and had always volunteered at soup kitchens and other activities. As for robotics, I had pursued it from very early on in my life, and it is my passion. So, here was an opportunity to pull them together.”
After Sailesh moved to college the next year, I took over coaching the teams along with Vijai Natarajan, another Sai Center volunteer, and Kumar Varadhan, an IBM employee who often participated in the service activities organized by the Sai Center. Varadhan was so helpful that he even applied for a $3,000 grant from IBM and was successful in procuring Robotics Kits from IBM for both teams. Later on help for procuring some more kits and handling other expenditures was obtained through grants from high tech employers like 3M, Intel and a non-profit group called Skillpoint Alliance.
There were additional expenditures like obtaining team shirts, registration, transportation, and food for the team meetings. All of these things just came together for this to happen. Sai Center volunteers generously provided the snacks (cookies, granola bars, fruit snacks, etc.) for all team meetings being held about four times a week, since kids used to stay back till late evening and work. Everything just fell into place. You realize how our Lord is right there helping you at every step!
Others were approached for grants to help the kids. These donors were inspired by when they saw the extent to which we were trying to help the children from very low income neighborhoods. They were, in particular, inspired by the efforts of young Sailesh, who was spending four afternoons a week at the schools.
I also wanted these generous donors to understand the tough challenges these students face. For example, the family of one of the students cannot even afford their own vehicle so the student’s teacher often drives her home, after the robotics club. Many of the children we work with in the robotics club come from such similar impoverished circumstances. Many of their parents do not speak English, but the kids are so dedicated to learning that they persevere hard to overcome the disadvantages they are faced.
So far, the creation of these teams in 2012 has been met with success. The two teams from McBee Elementary School and one team from Bagdad Elementary School took part in the FIRST LEGO League competition in Central Texas in December 2012; The Bagdad Robotics Club, or the Bobcats – named for a combination of ‘Robot’ and the school mascot, the bobcat – has become so popular that there’s a waiting list for students to join. In 2013, the group progressed to having two more teams. This included an additional team from Bagdad Elementary School and a team from Allison Elementary School, another low-income school, bringing the total to four teams, set to impress the audience! With the exception of a few kids who are not that motivated, most are very grateful for the opportunity. We would get thank you cards at the end of the term, and the parents would be very grateful and come and thank us! The school, of course, is just thrilled as we make something happen that would not have been possible otherwise.
According to Bagdad Elementary School Principal, Cathy White, there are more than 400 students participating in after-school clubs and she feels active volunteers are needed for organizing and sustaining them. Such activities organized in different clubs will help these economically disadvantaged students to be at par in academic achievement with those students from other schools in rich school districts. Volunteers are important to ensure smooth running of the extracurricular activities in schools. Sai Region 10 President Alejandro Grana, who also resides in Austin, believes that their support is needed to kindle early interest in learning. Grana encourages high school students to take up tutoring elementary students as part of community service and feels strongly that such service is more valuable than cleaning a park or a stadium. Over time, these high school students learn to engage in service learning and community service projects, develop leadership and citizenship skills, and numerous life skills.
Sailesh reflected on his experience being involved in the Robotics Club: “I had helped tutor kids, but never taught a class by myself before. Robotics is my life, so I drew on what I was taught about robotics in 5th grade. If we can channel these kids’ enthusiasm into Robotics, we could be shaping them to become our nation’s future engineers! Robotics has really inspired the kids. In a community newspaper called Impact News, there was even an article about them. Now when you ask these kids what they want to be when they grow up, they will answer straight up ‘an engineer!’ These kids are asking their parents if they could continue it the next year too! You get them in the 4th grade and just plant the seed. The moment I pulled out the robot kit, they were hooked! Every kit comes with a simple program, just to get it to move. It seemed so ordinary to me, but when the kids saw something so new and different, they were really excited. There were times when I just knew the Lord was right there with us. There are three parts to the First Lego League competition: building the robot itself, writing a research paper about the project, and teamwork. One of the things I did to teach about teamwork was to have the students do an improv skits. I remember once the students came up with this awful caveman skit and they were just fighting and beating up each other, and I thought, ‘How are these children ever going to work together?’” Sailesh recalled. “Alejandro Grana was there and started talking to them about how to work together, assign roles, and cooperate. The next time we went, they told me they had met in advance at lunch to assign roles for the project so they would not have to spend our meeting time to do that. I was amazed that they had met outside of the Robotics Club time to learn to work more efficiently! Personally, I’ve always loved helping others, but participating in this activity brought a new love of teaching to me. It’s one thing to make yourself an expert, but something completely different to pass that expertise to others. Teaching is the most beautiful thing someone can do, and I will be sure to do something involving teaching in the future…whether it is as a robotics coach or in some other way.”
I recollect two stories which make this project especially memorable. First, there was a fifth grader who was there to learn math. He had never passed the TAKS/STAAR exam in 3rd and 4th grade. After being mentored and tutored in our after- school program, he passed the 5th grade on the first try! In another instance, , one of the robotics team was made up of all girls who were in the 25th spot (total 26 teams) at the competition before the finals. Sailesh gave them a pep talk and encouraged them to do the necessary tweaking of the Robot and make adjustments to the programs. They did that and went to the finals.. All of the programs worked and they jumped to 12th place. The girls were so ecstatic that everyone in the gym could hear their shrill screams of delight. It is not that they won but they felt they had accomplished something they had never thought they could. Seeing the joyous pride and exuberance in their faces was indeed very fulfilling!”
This has been such a rewarding service project – indeed, the more we do, the more we want to do and we have been actively looking for volunteers and donations to expand. Today we have three schools and four teams just in Robotics. I feel blessed and lucky to be able to do this. It also makes me realize there is such potential and talent in every child, and it is truly a blessing to help each child, no matter how seemingly hopeless their situation, encourage them to realize their full potential and provide them with the resources to do so. Helping them all is truly like serving God. And I feel I am truly able to understand Baba’s teachings on the value of service in our lives.