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lundi, novembre 13, 2006

Ayorkor Mills-Tettey - Using Robotics to Teach Creativity in Ghana

When my very dear friend, Ayorkor, first told me that she was spending her summer vacation in Ghana teaching Robotics to local students, I wouldn't believe her and my first reaction was "yeah right ! you're going for a boone-doggle!" I was proved wrong when the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute published a new paper entitled, "Teaching technical creativity through Robotics: A case study in Ghana".


The objectives of the study were summarized by Robots.net. (via Timbuktu Chronicles) "The problem faced by the CMU researchers was how to teach creative use of technology to students in developing regions who tended to think of technology in very narrow terms (for example thinking of computer software only in terms of databases or business applications)."

Ayorkor Mills-Tettey is PhD student at the prestigious CMU Robotics Institute. She grew up in Nigeria and Ghana, and then moved to the U.S. for university in 1997. She is among the very few black women in the Robotics discipline. Along the Sanaga river, Ayorkor shares her experience with a witty fashion. She relates the summer experience led in partnerhsip between Ashesi University and Carnegie Mellon, talks about Ghana, her motherland, Robotics and briefly presents her research. She makes sound and passionate observations when drawing synergies between technology, education and development. She is a strong advocate of the role that technology should play in education in Africa.

Sanaga - hello Ayorkor, can you please introduce your research briefly?

Ayorkor: I work on two different areas of research.

  • The first is path planning, which is a traditional area of robotics. In collaboration with my advisors Dr. Tony Stentz and Dr. Bernardine Dias at Carnegie Mellon University, I work on designing efficient algorithms to find paths for autonomous robots in partially known environments. Currently, our focus is the domain of robotics exploration. For example, consider the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity that are currently exploring Mars. These rovers need to navigate from one point to another on the planet, making their way around various obstacles in their environment, but continuously monitoring various constraints such as whether they can maintain communication contact with earth, and whether they have sufficient charge in their batteries. We are interested in designing algorithms for such domains where there are many constraints, but where optimality and efficiency are important.
  • The second area I am interested in concerns education and technology and their relationship to development. Sustainable development is not just about having food, shelter and healthcare, but it's about every person and community on this earth being able to develop their potential, express their creativity and contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. Suitable and relevant education is the key to this kind of development, and technology is a powerful tool that can be exploited in this process.

What is TechBridgeWorld at Carnegie Mellon University?

TechBridgeWorld is an organization based out of Carnegie Mellon University that is committed to the innovation of technology to contribute to the needs of development around the world. By collaborating with developing communities around the world on various sustainable technology projects, it is committed to increasing the diversity of the producers and consumers of technology and thereby promoting the ideal of technology accessible to all. TechBridgeWorld was founded by Dr. M. Bernardine Dias, who is faculty at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon and grew up in Sri Lanka.


Explain to us the undergraduate introductory Robotics course that you taught at Ashesi University last summer?

This past summer, I worked with Dr. Bernardine Dias, Dr. Brett Browning (another professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon), and Dr. Nathan Amanquah (a computer science professor at Ashesi University) to design and teach an introductory robotics course for computer science undergraduates at Ashesi University in Ghana. The goal of this course was to help students further develop their technical creativity and to expose them to one aspect of the breadth of computer science. Robotics as a field integrates computer science, electrical engineering, mechnical engineering, mathematics, physics, human-computer interaction and many other disciplines. It is truly a multi-disciplinary subject and as such is a great platform for learning many different things. Working on hands-on robotics projects is challenging but very motivational. Anyone who has struggled and struggled to get something to work and then was eventually able to see the product of their efforts functioning before their eyes can understand what I mean.


The aim of the course was to capture some of this excitement and motivation and use it to help students become even better problem-solvers and scientists. The skills learned in working on robotics projects are applicable to many other kinds of technical and creative projects. The course was also aimed at helping students recognize that there are so many things that can be done with computer science and so it is important for them to think broadly.


Why Ghana? Do you see other African countries where local universities could apply this experience to their curriculum?


We worked with Ashesi in Ghana because we had a previous relationship with them - I had served as a visiting lecturer there a couple of years ago - and they wanted this course. Ashesi as an institution is innovative, ready to try new things, commited to providing an excellent education to its students and committed to persuing the state of the art while ensuring that they continue to provide an education that is relevant to the African context. As such, they were an ideal partner in many respects. In designing the course, however, the goal was not just to design a course for Ghana, but a course for any university in a similar context, that is, in a community where computing technology is in its early stages of impact. This and other course material will be made available to universities through a respository currently being developed by TechBridgeWorld.

What lessons did you learn from this experience?

There are too many to list :)

  • Obviously, we learned more about teaching, about what works and what doesn't.
  • We learned about the benefits of international partnerships between universities. Perhaps one of the most important things we learned is that this is possible.The course was a success, and the students did well and gained a lot of experience. There was a lot of interest in the course, and we hope that it will continue having an impact and contribute to the process of developing technical professionals who are capable and creative in their approach to problem-solving, because capable and creative professionals are really needed in Africa.

Next time Ayorkor talks to me about her vacation plans, I promise to pay attention because she demonstrated successfully that she truly belongs to this new generation of Africans that take simple but meaningful actions to promote the development of our continent. Kudos to Ayorkor, TechBridgeWorld and Ashesi University for this tremendous experience, we wish her a lot of success in her academics endeavours.

Source images: courtesy of Ayorkor Mills-Tettey

Tags: Robotics, Computer Science, Ayorkor Mills-Tettey, Ashesi University, ICT in Africa, African Education, African development, Carnegie Mellon, Techbridgeworld