Sitting in pairs in an air-conditioned bus, young students giggle as a mini robot they programmed slides across a small table, changing its LED light colour each time it alters course.
These students from the Rosyth School are being introduced to computer programming with a simple, walnut-sized robot. It’s part of Singapore’s increasingly popular Lab on Wheels programme — a mobile classroom that travels across the country to introduce students to technology through fun and engaging activities.
“Robotics is very fun and you keep on learning new things and new stuff for the robot to do,” says Shyam, a student at the School. “And it is pretty cute when you see the robot move and the robot accomplishes all its movements.”
It’s more than just fun and games, however. It’s part of a larger digital skills initiative that Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) takes quite seriously as the city-state advances on its Smart Nation mission.
Lab on Wheels is an introductory step that leads to the larger Code@SG initiative that aims to make coding and computational thinking a national capability. The IMDA views this as critical to ensuring that the next generation will be relevant in the digital economy.
Beyond the statistics — some of which claim that 95% of jobs already have a digital component — IMDA’s CEO Tan Kiat How says he understands the importance of investing in technology skills from personal experience.
“I think coding, and in a way computer engineering, has taught me some valuable skillsets. It helped me think about the world, it helped to solve problems, and also, in a way, imagine a different solution to a problem. And I think that’s a very fundamental capability or mindset that’s actually much needed in a future workforce, regardless of whether you are in the ICT sector,” he said. “The whole of Singapore ought to have that kind of skillset.”
The IMDA launched the first Lab on Wheels bus in November 2014, but quickly expanded to four buses — two for primary school children and two for secondary school children — in May 2016.
The primary school buses are retrofitted as a mobile classroom with tables and chairs, and computers and screens. The secondary school buses are retrofitted as a mobile fabrication lab with 3D printers, laser cutters, virtual reality (VR) goggles.
“To find the robots moving, responding according to how they programmed it, I think they find tremendous joy in their learning during this programme.” – Julia Ng, Senior Teacher and ICT Mentor at Rosyth School
The four-bus fleet travels to schools across the country, and to date has visited over 150 primary and secondary schools and reached more than 50 000 students. The team hopes to target 80% of Singapore’s 180 primary schools by 2020.
“Hopefully one day, [the students] find that many of the skillsets they picked up through some of these interactions with technology can be applied in very different domains,” says Kiat How.
“Ultimately, the programmes and their successes, rest on a tripartite partnership between the government, the companies and the people,” says Kiat How.
The programme is supported by both small-medium enterprises (SMEs) and multinational corporations, who work together on such initiatives as the co-creation of workshop activities and loaning the laptops that the children use to programme the robots.
Moreover, the Lab on Wheels trainers are all IMDA staff, who work as facilitators in the morning and double up as project managers, tech engineers and curriculum developers for the programme in the afternoon.
Back on the bus, the 30-minute class was nearly over. The students chatted excitedly about the tasks they had just performed with each other, comparing their progress as they disembarked.
“To find the robots moving, responding according to how they programmed it, I think they find tremendous joy in their learning during this programme.” Julia Ng, Senior Teacher and ICT Mentor at Rosyth School said.
The workshops have had some impact in increasing students’ interest in computer science. While some already pursue robotics as an after-school activity, the programme has been an inspiration for others.
“When I saw my brother working on technology, I thought it was really complicated and sometimes even he couldn’t figure it out,” Jessica, a student at Rosyth School told ITU News.
“I had never actually programmed a robot before, and on second thoughts now, I am actually thinking about joining robotics as my CCA (Co-Curricular Activity).”
Indeed, the impact has already been felt beyond the mobile environment, as Ng explained.
“In this digital time and age, because of the motivational level that has been heightened through ICT in the classroom and school grounds, they have gone on to pursue ICT in their higher education level. When they come back to visit us, they have so much to share about how ICT has impacted in their learning journey,” she said.
Students taking part in the programme now are already keenly aware of the positive impact of technology beyond education.
“I think that technology can be fun sometimes and it can help people in our lifetimes,” Jessica said.
Ultimately, the best endorsement comes from the students: “I do love Lab on Wheels. It was fun as we learned how to programme.” Shyam beamed. “I want to programme cars — that’s my favourite dream — and build them. So yes, I want to be a technologist when I grow up.”
By Lucy Spencer (@inquisitivelucy), ITU News
© All Photos: Julie Marchand/ITU News
[For more on-the-ground examples of how ICTs are accelerating the SDGs, read the latest edition of ITU News Magazine.]