i2M: The plan to educate thousands of South African high-school learners in robotics

i2M (Intro to Mechatronics) is a new initiative pioneered by GE Africa in association with Digicate & Ryonic Robotics to issue thousands of South African high schoolers with a crash course in robotics.

In the latter half of 2017, youth unemployment in South Africa sits at a worrying estimated figure of 55.9% – a conundrum only compounded by the failure of the country’s secondary schooling system and sparse efforts to encourage interests in a multitude of careers – among them, in STEM (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. However, a breath of fresh air has arrived thanks to an innovative partnership between GE Africa, Digicate and Ryonic Robotics in the form of i2M.
What’s i2M? That’s a great question. More simply titled Intro to Mechatronics, i2M is a new project designed to educate thousands of students across South Africa in elementary robotics by designing an elementary Mars rover.
Where school-goers of my year may have been handed a textbook or given a cursory glance at a logic board, i2M instead offers high school learners the chance to get to grips with their own mechatronics kit and develop their own rover through harnessing both basic hardware and software skills.
Read: Microsoft unveils the ‘Classroom of the Future’ at the Cape Town Science Centre 
The i2M course will offer modules on varied subjects; students will be offered lessons on an introduction to engineering and robotics, an introduction to the basics of design and 3D printing, assembling and programming their rover, and each school’s top student will be offered a monthly visit to GE Africa’s Innovation Centre.
For the purpose of having students assemble and program their own rover, i2M supplies students with a pre-designed kit consisting of various components that enables students to get stuck in with fabricating, assembling, and programming their own rover to perform a series of determined moves.
What perhaps adds to the ‘cool factor’ of the setup is its design, which leverages additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing to cost-effectively craft a kit that’s easy to mass produce and deliver directly into the hands of high-school learners throughout the country.
We were fortunate to get our hands on such a kit, which proved how simple – though educational – the setup experience was; comprised of composite materials assembled through 3D printing techniques as well as a series of logic boards and good old fashioned cardboard, the entirety of the package encourages learners to get their hands dirty with a staple set of glue and a handy screwdriver while assembling their own rover.

For students and interested creators alike, the process is outlined by both a handy set of guidelines an instructional video, which I myself duly watched while unfastening my glued-together fingers.
Touching on programming, that forms the second dimension of i2M’s plan – through the development of the rover, students are then directed to get to grips with a rudimentary interface on a Windows 7 PC, where they can direct their rover through programming the unit within a basic geographical programming interface.
Though my experience with code is limited to the web, the process both proved to be a fun and educational one – with the fulfillment of having one’s rover carry out a set of instructions with aplomb.
The beauty of the system for high school learners is that the kit becomes just as much an element of play as school assignment; once the process is complete, students will have their own rover with which to take home and program on a daily basis. Students can continue to tinker, set up pre-determined tasks, or even team up with a friend to trial a rover-on-rover race.

i2m rover
A 3D render of the completed rover.

Speaking of competition, the lucky six-hundred students who receive the i2M kit will be eligible to enter into a unique competition wherein they will be encouraged to build their own rover using the programming unit, electronic circuit board, and accompany motors along with any other recyclable material of their choice to produce their own rover.
Participants have until the 15th of September to upload a video of their rover to www.digicate.co.za, whereafter entries will be judged and 30 participants will be selected to attend a one-day workshop with a 3D printing component to advance their designs.
The grand finale is set for the 6th of October, where judging will take place and three winners will be selected; 3rd place will win an iPad Mini, 2nd place will win an iPad Pro, while a lucky winner will take home the grand prize – a 3D MakerBot printer for their personal use, as well as a 3D MakerBot printer for their school.
The premise of the system is a landmark execution for South African high school learners, and aims to promote interest in the burgeoning field of robotics and mechatronics – and will hopefully help cultivate the minds that will shape our interaction with not only all things digital, but will also help lead the industrial renaissance in Africa and beyond.
Read: #TechTalk August highlights makers & innovators in South Africa
What are your thoughts? Do you yearn for the experience of a project like i2M in your schooling days? If you’re still in school, would you value the experience? Be sure to let us know your opinion in the comments below!
Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA