South African is working hard to fire up young Kazakhs about robotics

13 февраля 2015, 12:42

 When Pragasen Naidoo began teaching computer science at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Uralsk three years ago, he was delighted to see a colleague using Lego Mindstorm robots in class.
Pragsen, a South African whose friends call Pat, knew he’d met a kindred spirit in the American, Michael Little Crow.

Michael had used his five robots to turn students in the United States and Thailand on to learning. Pat had done the same with students in the United Arab Emirates.  

“Michael and I got together to teach our Uralsk students how to control and program them,” Pat said in an interview.

Pragasen Naidoo heads the World Robotics Olympiad’s Kazakhstan organization. Photo courtesy of Pragasen Naidoo.

Assembling a robot from a kit or building one from scratch is the easy part, robotics aficionados will tell you. The more challenging part is programming them to do what you want.        
One of Pat and Michael’s first projects was having students build sumo-wrestler robots. Once students had assembled and programmed their robots, they would have them fight each other sumo style, with the winner being the robot that pushed the other out of a ring. That competition got students so fired up that they wanted to learn even more about robotics, Pat said.
Pat, too, became hooked. He would stay at school as late as 10 p.m. experimenting and trying to learn more about robotics, and he would buy equipment for his students out of his own pocket.
He began taking students to robotics training and competitions abroad, and he organized a national robotics competition in Astana.

A student checks out a robot at a training session and competition at Nazarbayev University. Photo courtesy of Pragasen Naidoo.
In December of 2014 he transferred to the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Kostanai to accept a promotion as international-team leader. He’s incorporating robotics into the curriculum, as he did at Uralsk, and preparing students for competitions.
His wife Indira has worked with him at the intellectual schools in Uralsk and Kostanai. She teaches English and prepares students for university-admissions English-proficiency tests such as IELTS.
She’s also caught Pat’s robotics fever. She has helped students prepare presentations in English for robotics competitions. And she was a judge at World Robotics Organization competition in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Pat’s dream is to hold a World Robotics Olympiad – one of the premier competitions for students -- in Kazakhstan in a few years.
Because of the commitment he’s shown to the craft, the World Robotics Olympiad has named him its country organizer for Kazakhstan. Accepting that position was a labor of love because it requires a lot of time – and it’s unpaid.
A stroke of fortune for Pat was that Kazakhstan’s educational planners included robots in the mix of equipment the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools got.

The schools, as the name “intellectual” implies, are magnet educational institutions for Kazakhstan’s brightest students.
The Education Ministry started them in 2009 to produce students with the skills to attend the world’s top universities and become Kazakhstan’s next generation of leaders. There are 17 schools now, with three more planned. They are in every region of Kazakhstan.
For a while Pat didn’t know that the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Uralsk had robots. Seeing the shine in students’ eyes as they worked with Michael’s five robots, he asked school Principal Sholpan Kadyrova if she could purchase some.
“Let me show you something,” she replied.
She took him to a storage room that -- Pat was shocked to see -- contained 20 unopened Lego robot kits.
“We didn’t know what to do with them,” she said.
Pat felt like he’d just struck gold.
“Every (Nazarbayev Intellectual) school had them but nobody was doing anything with them,” he said.
He and Michael quickly incorporated the 20 robots into their teaching.
One of the mandates that the Education Ministry gave those running the intellectual schools was to experiment with innovative teaching approaches and techniques – and Pat and Michael were certainly doing that.
One day Sholpan “came in and saw all that the children were doing with the robots,” Pat said. “After that she was our biggest supporter.”
Although Pat could teach the students the basics of robotics, he wanted to learn more so he could give them advanced training.
He jumped onto the Internet, striking up conversations with robotics whizzes willing to share their knowledge. One was an American, Jim Sluka, and another a Russian, Maxim Vasilev, both of whom he still keeps in touch with.
Pat also began taking his students to Russia for robotics training and competitions.
“We wanted Russian experts to help us do more complex programming in an easy-to-understand language and that could be completed in a short time frame,” he said.
The first training-and-competition event was at a physics and math magnet school in Russia’s Arctic Circle city of Murmansk.

Kazakh students file onto the nuclear-powered Russian ice breaker Lenin for a tour during a robotics training and competition in Murmansk. Photo courtesy of Pragasen Naidoo.

“The people in Murmansk were the best, and the vodka was the best,” Pat remembers with a smile.
Even better, one of his students won a first place and another a third at the aptly named RoboArctica competition.
Since Murmansk, Pat has taken students to two training sessions and a half dozen competitions in Moscow and other cities in Russia. “My students and I have learned a lot from the Russians,” he said.
Besides soaking up knowledge from Russian programmers and online acquaintances, Pat said he’s learned from his students. One of his Uralsk proteges, Muratbek Bulganbayev, “is the best Lego robot programmer in Kazakhstan,” he declared.
In addition to taking students to competitions in Kazakhstan and Russia, Pat took them to one in Indonesia. He also judged World Robotics Olympiads in Abu Dhabi in 2011 and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2012. At the 2013 global competition in Jakarta, the World Robotics Olympiads’ governing body named him the organization’s Kazakhstan national organizer.
Pat recalls some Russians being surprised when his entourage showed up for trainings and competitions.
“Why is a South African bringing Kazakh students here?” they wondered.
The reason, he told me, is that “I want to give something back to this country that has been such a wonderful host.”
His latest effort to give something back is teaching robotics to students at a Kostanai school for hearing-impaired children twice a week.
He’s in the process of getting a master’s in education at the University of South Africa, where he earned his bachelors degree. He’s decided his master’s thesis will be “Using Robots to Teach Mathematics to Hearing-Impaired Children.”
Pat has been pleased that other Kazakhstan schools have embraced robotics, adding: “I’ve met some really good teachers.”
The growing interest led to a surprising 32 schools taking part in the nationwide World Robotics Olympiad that he organized in Astana in September of 2014.

Students flood into Nazarbayev University for the World Robotics Olympiad’s Kazakhstan national competition in 2014. Photo courtesy of Pragasen Naidoo.

One of the highlights of the overseas competitions he’s been involved in is that 15 of the 17 Kazakh students he took to a Russian event nabbed a first, second or third place.
“The Russians were stunned,” he said.
Another highlight was his students competing in St. Petersburg’s National Congress Palace – a place so glittering that Group of Eight summits have been held there.

A Kazakh student uses a computer to program a robot during a training and competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo courtesy of Pragasen Naidoo.

One of Pat’s goals is to take students to more competitions, both inside and outside Kazakhstan.
This year’s World Robotics Olympiad will be in Qatar, the 2016 one in India and the 2017 one in Mexico.
Pat is determined to bring the Olympiad to Kazakhstan.
He talks up – to anyone who’ll listen -- his notion of having the competition in Astana in 2020.
Crucial to this happening will be getting government officials on board and finding corporations to help sponsor it.
The Maersk petroleum company is a major sponsor of this year’s Olympiad in Qatar, he noted.
Kazakhstan has its share of companies in petroleum, mining, finance and other fields that could pitch in.
They shouldn’t be surprised to see a determined-looking Pat Naidoo knocking on their doors.
He not only loves robotics, but he’s convinced the discipline will help Kazakhs become some of the world’s most capable scholars, scientists, researchers and leaders in other fields.

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