JumpStart Robotics and Coding goes virtual with Daniella Lekgau

Robotics and Coding
JumpStart’s Robotics and Coding programme is now being taught completely online!

Imagine lifting the lid on the future of Grade 6 and 7 learners. Imagine intermediate phase learners grasping that they have a unique opportunity to do learn the skills that could give them meaningful and exciting work as adults. Daniella Lekgau, Project Manager of JumpStart Robotics Labs, has a big vision. She has seen how children who learn to build and programme robots have to think through a series of complex and difficult processes. When they struggle to grasp concepts they must endure their own frustration and they develop the skills to work through it and arrive at new solutions.

Life skills and learning to code

A small group of intermediate phase learners in the Ekurhuleni South Education district have enjoyed learning to code while developing creative thinking skills too. These youngsters have been motivated to study harder through the robotics and coding education, which is also highly enjoyable.

Until March this year, this talented cohort were engaged at Tamaho Primary School in an after school programme where they created and programmed physical Lego models out of Lego sets in small groups. In 2019, they participated in the FIRST Lego League competition held at UNISA and their progress was celebrated at a year end function at Tamaho Primary School. Due to Covid-19 safety requirements to prevent the spread of the virus, they no longer have access to the shared Lego sets and they no longer have direct access to their tutors and each other.

Covid snakes into the syllabus

Many educators were genuinely and understandably fearful about the impact of the pandemic on learning. When lockdown level 5 started, Daniella realised that almost all learning would have to be done virtually. Suddenly all the modules she had created for the Jumpstart interns had to work online too. This was no different, and she sought to find a way to teach the robotics skills from afar. By combining a number of different software options, she has created a virtual learning environment. The long term goal of a robotics and coding programme is to switch children on to the possibilities of technology, to inspire a love of mathematics, and to open doors to STEM careers.

Playing with Python

Through Coursera, Daniella extended her knowledge of Python learning to automate IT systems. As a programming language, Python is relatively easy to learn and use. Another plus is the large number of libraries that are available for use in programmer’s projects.

With the new skills she learnt, she started the process of creating a module for the JumpStart Interns to learn how to automate using Python. To avoid any copyright issues, she created the module from scratch. She had already outlined a Python crash course module with tests and exams for them. They’re systematic and online and will help the JumpStart interns learn to programme using Python. There are five modules that interns need to get through in order to teach the material.

Software comes together to create a virtual robotics space

Google Classroom gave them a space where learners could attend and stream lessons, and submit their assignments online. The learners in the JumpStart Robotics and Coding Lab programme are between the ages of 10 and 12. They can confidently use the programmes that Daniella has combined to enable their continued learning.

Got a problem? Make a plan!

Faced with a problem, Daniella made a plan. Lego Digital Designer is a digital space where they can build their virtual models. With the Virtual Robotics Toolkit they can programme their robots using the MINDSTORMS programming language. These programmes together allow the learners to complete the whole process of building, programming, and playing with their robots in a digital space.

A novel and scaleable solution

Daniella’s novel solution to the challenge of Covid restrictions opened exciting possibilities for the scalability of the virtual endeavour. She explained it, with a note of pride and excitement: “We partnered with the developers of the Virtual Robotics Toolkit, who normally cater to private institutions. We are getting a terrific discount for the software, and they can assess the efficacy of the software in a large organisation. We get to grow our robotics programme, and they get detailed feedback on the use of their software. It’s a win-win situation!”

One of the limiting factors during Covid has been staying in contact with students. Some children went home to rural parts of the country and had no access to devices and/or severely limited network coverage. The high cost of data prevented others from participation. Many students use their parents devices, so class starts when parents return from work. Before schools closed, there were 60 students in the program. We now have a Google class with 53 of them. We hope the other seven can rejoin us soon!

Daniella the juggler 

Daniella lives with her 6-year-old son in Grade R, and her younger brother in Grade 7. When Covid-19 hit she was concerned for their health. Her little one hasn’t returned to school yet, so she collects his weekly school work at his Pre-School to complete from home. This new venture is so alive with possibilities that it keeps her up late at night. Daniella awakens with ideas flooding her head. She keeps a pen and paper beside her bed in order to jot down the bright ideas the minute they arrive. Daniella has become a master juggler! She balances mothering commitments, her own studies, writing the intern training material, and liaising with parents. This is time bound as many can only assist their children’s learning after 7pm.

Partner with JumpStart Robotics and Coding

If you would like to support this unique programme please consider a donation to The JumpStart Foundation Trust. We are a Public Benefit Organisation with the goal of accelerating South African youth into the digital economy through education, qualification and employment. Partner with us and qualify for your SARS Section 18(a) certificate. Email Betty Oliphant for more information.

Cover image courtesy of James Pond


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