Bridging the STEM Skills Gap

Panel discussion on ICT and Automation for rural sustainability at the 9th IEEE International Conference on Information and Automation for Sustainability – 2018

The 2018 International Conference on Information and Automation for Sustainability (ICIAFS) was held in Sri Lank on 21-22 December 2018 with the theme of Sustainable development through effective man-machine coexistence. The 9th ICIAfS was a global forum for sharing new developments in the general areas of automation and sustainability.

I was glad to be a part of the panel discussion which was organized to discuss how ICT and Automation can use for the rural development. Four panelists with ground level experience in community engagement, volunteering, and entrepreneurship were there and my focus area was STEM education and how STEMUp Educational Foundation is trying empower grassroots via various volunteer based programs. Here is the summary of my initial pitch,

As technological advances become an integral part of our factories and work-spaces, a strong background in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will be non-negotiable for workers seeking to improve their career prospects. While automated processes will make certain jobs obsolete, the need to implement and maintain automated systems will create a host of new high-paying opportunities. That is, if the next generation of workers has the skills to fill these vacancies.

Most educational systems were founded in a time when “learning” meant “rote memorization.” Today, however, we live in an exponentially changing world in which success demands creativity and innovation. Simple facts are available at the click of a button but connecting ideas to draw new conclusions in not so easy. Unfortunately, innovation is still not a valued learning objective in most schools today.

This is where STEMUP Educational Foundation is coming in to the picture. Our mission is to inspire and engage students to become interested in pursuing STEM careers and to become innovators, problem solvers rather than just becoming consumers. Our organization carries out several initiatives to reach that goal.

As we all agree, computer programming knowledge helps kids better understand the world around them. Next question was how to teach kids programming skills in a different way. We were exploring options, best practices being used in other countries. As a result of that we came across micro:bit, a micro controller with set of in-built sensors and a block based programming platform which encourages kids to learn basic coding and programmingskills. We were able to officially introduce the device to Sri Lanka after couple of months of it’s global launch. That day onward, we are conducting various types of workshops, teacher and volunteer training, district level mini hackathons, ideation contests in schools, universities, libraries and rural IT centers through Micro:bit SLUG. Thanks to various government and non-government stake holders, Micro:bit has been included in Grade 8 and 9 national curriculum from 2019 onward along with Arduino and Scratch.

CoderDojo Sri Lanka is our next major initiative. CoderDojo Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan network of CoderDojo – an international open source social education movement oriented around the running of fun, free and social coding clubs (Dojos) for young people. We have adapted the program in Sri Lanka and on-boarded around 20 rural IT centers so far. Our trainers are conducting train the trainer programs to make sure CoderDojo project based learning resources are being delivered to kids properly.

The driving force behind our foundation is our dedicated volunteer base. As of today, there are more than 500 registered volunteers from all around the country. Those volunteers have divided into various squads. i.e. micro:bit Squad, Arduino Squad, Scratch Squad, App Inventor Squad etc. We basically receive requests from the general public via our web platform. Then through a well structured procedure we are forwarding that to the nearest available volunteer through district volunteer ambassadors.

Lastly, I was invited by Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Reader in Design Engineering at Imperial College London, United Kingdom. Many thanks for the invitation and the opportunity given to share our experiences and on-going activities.