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Tanzanian trip plants seed for robotics and future technology

Kristen B. Morales

June 21, 2019

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Robots, says University of Georgia professor John Mativo, are a way to connect student learning with a country's economic success. And a recent trip taken by Mativo, other faculty members and a dozen graduate students from across Georgia can help achieve that goal in Tanzania.

Funded by a Fulbright-Hays grant through the U.S. Department of Education, the visit earlier this summer served multiple purposes, said Mativo: It introduced a robotics curriculum to faculty at Mwenge Catholic University in Moshi, Tanzania, as well as teachers at two rural elementary schools. It also planted a seed for additional educator trainings and partnerships with labs to develop sustainable energy production that can be part of a larger robotics curriculum.

Using lesson plans developed by faculty in the UGA College of Education and translated into Kiswahili, Mativo said the idea was to empower Tanzanian educators to train others in their own country and grow the robotics curriculum—something that can have large-scale economic impacts for the country as a whole.

"Tanzania is a large country and it has a lot of natural resources, but they have very little in place in terms of technology infrastructure and manufacturing," said Mativo, an associate professor in the department of career and information studies." So, we're looking at automation, which you can't do without coding, and you can't do without robots. This is a larger plan to try and help them achieve that."

The trip included Mativo; Robert Branch, head of the department of career and information studies; Lioba Moshi, director of UGA's African Studies Institute and University Professor; and 11 graduate-level students—some from UGA and some from colleges across Georgia—who assisted with teaching the robotics lessons. The Fulbright-Hays program provides grants to programs that provide overseas projects in training, research and curriculum development, and Mativo said plans are already in the works for a return trip.

The experience in Tanzania builds off Mativo's research experience in robotics, alternative energy sources and curriculum development. Last year he was part of a team conducting similar work in Honduras, where educators are now expanding the UGA-developed robotics curriculum in rural schools. At UGA, his courses cross boundaries between education, engineering and alternative energy production, challenging students to consider new solutions for rural areas or third-world countries.

Before the visit, neither the Tanzanian university nor the schools had robotics programs. But lessons in robotics combine mathematics and science concepts and apply them to real-world scenarios. "For example, you can use ideas in physics, like Newton's Law and acceleration, as well as kinetics, which is when you add a force to a motion," Mativo said. "When you put this together, the robots integrate all of the above. And the students can have fun and see the relevance of the subject matter together."

A portion of the trip also included a stop at an energy lab, where Mativo and his team began working on a plan to integrate energy production into the curriculum. This was particularly relevant as the two elementary schools in the program did not have electricity. "Because we can say all we want to say about robots, but if we don't have energy to power them, we have nothing," added Mativo. "So, we think it's a good package where not only do the students learn about coding and information, but they also learn to take energy from alternative means."

For now, both the university faculty and the elementary teachers have their own set of robot kits—eight at each elementary school and another 16 kits spread out among departments and the library at Mwenge Catholic University. After leaving the excited groups of educators, Mativo called the trip a success.

"It was a very good success, I think," he said. "Our aim was not only to begin, but to empower the team in Tanzania so they can continue the work without us. And that's our goal—for them to not be dependent on us. We want them to be independent and prosper."