Ndao works to create opportunities for children in Africa through robotics

Ndao works to create opportunities for children in Africa through robotics

Calendar Icon Sep 15, 2015      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Sidy Ndao (left), associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering, examines a student team's assembled robot at the SenEcole robotics camp in Dakar, Senegal this past March.
Sidy Ndao (left), associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering, examines a student team's assembled robot at the SenEcole robotics camp in Dakar, Senegal this past March.

Growing up in Senegal, Sidy Ndao dreamed of one day becoming a scientist so that he might make his own world better.

Now, in addition to his work as an assistant professor in the department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at UNL, Ndao is working to create those same opportunities for children in West Africa through yearly STEM camps that have introduced students to robotics and, Ndao hopes, inspired them to dream. STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

“I’ve seen how education has helped me– becoming financially stable and being able to enjoy certain privileges,” Ndao said. “I felt this same thing can apply to other people, especially underprivileged children living in Africa, where many of them don’t have access to high quality STEM education. They can grow to be future leaders and enable their families to have a better life.”

During UNL’s Spring Break this past March, Ndao and some colleagues from Cheikh Anta Diop University hosted the three-day robotics camp in Dakar, Senegal. Five-student teams from eight high schools in Dakar participated in the camp. There, they learned the basics – the history of robotics, building a robot, programming it to perform specified tasks and operating it.

It’s an extension of an effort that Ndao began while in graduate school, when the biggest challenge was monetary and Ndao was paying for much of the expenses with “pocket money.”

After coming to UNL in 2012, Ndao said, the program began to grow. Ndao tied some of the expenses to his research projects and laboratory, but later pitched the idea to his department chair, Jeff Shield, and college administrators, who all have given support.

“Having ties to UNL can open a lot of doors because you can tap into resources in the university and apply for grants, and that has worked out very well,” Ndao said. “And it makes it possible that some of these students might one day come to UNL to become engineers, too.”

Beyond individual impacts, Ndao believes that having highly STEM educated workforce is essential to the sustainable development of Africa and that one way to achieve it is through early engagement of young girls and boys in STEM via programs such as robotics and engineering design competitions.

Ndao has already begun working on the 2016 Robotics camp and has set his plans in motion to expand the scope of the camp from his native country to recruit students from across West Africa to take part in an event called the Pan-African Robotics Competition or simply PARC.

While his hopes for success are high, Ndao said he is trying to remain realistic about this endeavor.

“We have to be modest at the beginning. We probably won’t get students from all countries in Africa to travel this first year,” Ndao said. “We want however as many kids from all over Africa to come together and compete against each other in a friendly robotics competition. The idea is to have something similar to what we have here in the U.S. with the FirstRobotics and Lego Leagues teams.”

As part of the program, Ndao and his team of UNL students have designed a prototype of a low-cost robot – they call it “AZIBOt” – built entirely of parts that can be 3-D printed. Ndao said he envisions being able to ship the parts for the robot, a replica of the competition field and the specifics of the tasks to be completed to teams interested in competing.

“We’re planning to make 25 to 30 sets to give to the teams and get them started. It’s all being built here, all by our university students and a few high school students helping on the playing field design,” Ndao said. “The idea is by sometime in November to send the kits, and I will leave during the spring to do some of the preparatory work there.”

PARC2016 will have a theme that Ndao said will resonate with the African students involved – Powering Agriculture.

“Food, water, and clean environment are among challenges that African countries need to overcome, let’s start with STEM education” Ndao said. “The challenge will be for students to devise solutions for improving agriculture using science and technology – robotics, precision agriculture, machinery and so on.”

If all goes as planned, Ndao said he expects to have another spring break that will be anything but a break. For most of the days leading up to the start of the 2015 Robotics camp, Ndao was sequestered at a Dakar hotel, working on the final details for the camp and his UNL responsibilities.

But seeing the faces of the students who are being inspired by the possibilities of technology and the pride in their parents’ eyes, Ndao said makes all the work worthwhile.

“It’s going to be a busy year and busy spring, but it’s a passion. Honestly, when I see all these things happen in front of me, I’m no longer tired,” Ndao said. “It’s worth everything, and I’d do it again and again.”