Bringing Robotics and Engineering to East Africa

Lindsay “Linz” Craig is currently on his third trip to Uganda, working with schools and camps to teach kids DIY engineering and robotics for real-world situations. Whether that’s farming or electronics production, Craig hopes his lessons will empower Ugandans and make them less reliant on imported technology. He’s also training other teachers to continue the work in his absence.

I caught up with Craig to find out more about the project and why it’s so important to him.

What made you quit your job to work with kids in Uganda on robotics and engineering skills?

Linz_Craig_Hat.largeThey needed my help, and they asked!

While I was working at SparkFun Electronics I had the opportunity to be the co-founder of their education department. We used electronics as a creative medium and hands-on learning tool, and we’d often get emails requesting samples or help with training.

One day, I received an email from a gentleman named Solomon King in Uganda. He had a passion for robotics and was starting a program called Fundi Bots (Fundi is the word for technician) in his home country. Solomon was the only guy in Uganda doing K-12 robotics education, and he was just getting it off the ground.

After learning about the opportunity in Uganda, I was introduced to Sandra Washburn, founder of Oysters & Pearls, which is another educational program in Uganda with emphasis on teaching STEM topics to students—many of whom are blind. She asked me, “If I buy you a plane ticket, will you teach with us for a month?” I was interested, but it was a big leap.

I was based in Colorado and enjoyed working with kids in the U.S., but this was a whole new challenge for me. I asked a co-worker his opinion, and he said, “I think you’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t.” That helped me make my decision to pursue this passion as well.

So, I decided to quit my job and see what I could do to help in Uganda.

What is your background and how did that lead you to what you are doing now?

I grew up on a farm in Massachusetts. We had cows, sheep, rabbits, and a big vegetable plot. I did a lot of volunteering—raking hay, helping fix farm machinery, that sort of thing. It really made you use your brain to solve problems.

I went on to study computer programming and multimedia education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I wanted to get into computers, but the regular route through computer science didn’t interest me. The majority of people who have my kind of degree go into computer programming because that’s where the money is, but I was interested in education.

I actually moved to Colorado because I love snowboarding and figured I’d get to pursue my passion more if I lived there. I was hired by SparkFun Electronics and started there as an educational outreach coordinator and worked my way up. From my work in education, I’ve seen that it is increasingly important that younger children are exposed to computers, robotics, and engineering.

What types of projects are you working on?

I work with schools in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, with professional engineering organizations doing research and development, and with a robotics camp for kids ages seven to 18. There are three groups of students in the camp, and we teach engineering, robotics, and advanced robotics and prototyping – this is biggest robotics and engineering camp the nation has seen.

These kids are learning about input/output, serial communication, Java, Bluetooth configuration, GUI creation, and PCB design and milling. The idea is to go through the entire design process all the way through PCB design. I am seeing leaps and bounds of progress.

One of our projects is automating a livestock feeder system and an irrigation system with Ideal Farmers Consult, the Fundi Bots, and East Carolina University. We have another group working on a robot, temperature sensors, sprinklers, display units, and a sonar based range finder help blind people navigate the world.

What is the reaction of the students?

The students are awesome! They are very attentive, very “here and now.” They’ll have questions like, “Can you grow food with this?”

In the U.S., we were teaching skill sets that the students may have used five to seven years down the road. But here, the students are interested in putting their skills into use immediately. It’s a pleasure to teach both—but a very different experience.

What is different about living in Uganda?

One of my first few times teaching, we didn’t have a generator and the power was intermittent. It’s interesting trying to teach robotics without electricity, but we worked around it. We worked on analogies and used the chalkboard until the power came back on.

You have to be OK with the fact that sometimes we don’t have running water. Also, you need to do certain things that are different than in the U.S.—take malaria pills, put on bug spray.

In terms of our supplies, imports is sometimes prohibited so we are teaching how to make basic tools, like an automated wire coil wrapper. We are making a tool chain to teach the concepts and create some of the hardware.

How are you funded?

Right now I’m partially self-funded, and about half of my funding comes from Oysters & Pearls. Solomon King is putting me up and I’ll stay as long as I can but then I’ll go back to the U.S. and take care of some independent clients and continue to help Solomon when I can.

I tried starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund some of this trip, but only received about half of the needed funding. However, I already have a lot of partners, Ugandan and American, who are working with me to ensure that we continue to have great successes teaching in East Africa.

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Craig

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