Teens develop robot to teach children basics of coding

Trinity Walton Club aims to show how real world problems might be solved by Stem

 

Adam Dalton (18), Evan Darcy (18) and Shane Curran (16) are the young brains behind a new DIY robotics kit that teaches children aged eight-plus the basics of coding in a fun way. Called Alpha, it is the first product from Robotify, the company set up by the trio in July and now based at Dublin City University’s Innovation Campus.

“I was introduced to coding at the age of 15 and was hooked from day one,” says Dalton. “I used to take weekly HTML and CSS classes after school and that was where it all began.” Dalton and Darcy both attended St Paul’s College in Raheny on Dublin’s north Side. They met Curran at the student enterprise awards and struck up a friendship.

Like many aspiring entrepreneurs, the first problem they faced was funding. They solved it by sinking their combined savings of €3,000 into the venture and running a robotics course for first-year students, for which they charged. This generated enough cash to buy the equipment they needed, such as a 3D printer, but it also provided an ideal testing ground for the product. “Teaching 25 students was a perfect opportunity to get to know our target market and we quickly discovered what worked about our product and what didn’t,” Dalton says.

“The product is inspired by our passion for code learning and ultimately we would love to change the way coding is perceived by children by changing the way it’s taught,” he continues. “Using a learn-by-doing method and engaging online tutorials we believe we can achieve this goal. Our product uses real world parts and real coding tutorials. Usually there’s either a focus on hardware or software but never both. We are educating kids how to create a simplified version of a third-level first-year engineering project in easy-to-understand terms. You can actually see what you are writing take effect in front of your eyes.”

Fees from courses and activity camps have continued to fund the development of Alpha, which is now on sale on the Robotify website at €69.99. It will also be available in the Makeshop at the Dublin Science Gallery from February. Further products are planned.

“We purchase most of our components from China. We then print our parts using a homebuilt 3D printer, solder our boards and package the product ourselves,” Dalton says. “Our product will teach children how distance sensors, motors and microcontrollers work; the basics of programming and how to write their own code. Our main customers will be parents and educators who are interested in talking to us about starting their own Robotify courses. The courses are an important source of ongoing revenue for us.”

Dalton may be just 18 years old, but he seems to have cracked some of the issues entrepreneurs a lot older struggle to master. “Remove everything else from the equation and just focus,” he says. “If you keep the focus you won’t waste six or nine months messing around. Don’t think about investment. If you don’t have a product/service you won’t get investment. How can someone invest in something that simply doesn’t exist? Focus on the wins, however small they may be. They will get you through the moments of sheer frustration and keep you going.”

WALTON CLUB AIMS TO ENCOURAGE YOUNG INNOVATORS

In 2014 Professors Arlene O’Neill and Igor Shvets of the school of physics at Trinity College Dublin set up the Walton Club to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects among second-level students. The club has now grown to more than 200 members who meet every Saturday for a three-hour session tutored by PhD and undergraduate students.

O’Neill is quick to scotch any notion that the Walton Club is a grinds school. “It’s got a completely different ethos and reason for being,” she says. “Our aim is to give students time and a conducive environment in which to learn without the pressures of a formal curriculum. To this we add teaching them how to collaborate, how to build a quality argument and how to solve problems. What they learn is largely self-directed as they choose the subject matter that interests them in addition to working on weekly physics, maths, technology and engineering problems.”

Áine McGuinness has been in the Walton Club since its formation. Now 16, the club is one of the highlights of her week. “You are with people who all love science as much as you do and that’s really enjoyable,” she says. “I also like the fact that we’re treated like adults, we’re constantly being challenged and that something is expected of us.”

In year three, students are required to do a team project involving independent research and development. For 2017, the general theme is healthy living and each team interprets the brief as it sees fit. “We have developed a headset with an embedded EEG sensor linked to a phone app,” McGuinness says. “It alerts you when a change in brain activity shows you are stressed or anxious and need to take a break as your productivity is dropping.”

O’Neill says a key part of the club is exposing students to real world problems and how they might be solved by Stem. “We want them to emerge from Walton believing that the skills they have developed from ‘being under the bonnet’ with us can make a difference. We also try to help them to develop the resilience all great innovators have and to accept failure as part of the learning process. From the research I’ve done so far,” O’Neill adds, “it appears that by year three of Walton, students are showing enhanced higher order thinking, problem solving and creativity. What’s fascinating for us is that we get a real insight into what’s important to teenagers and interestingly enough, mental health issues seem to be a top priority.”

The Walton Club runs between October and June. The next intake is October 2017. Applications open in late summer. Potential students are assessed by exam and personal statement. There is a €35 application/exam fee and membership costs €250 a term. Scholarships are available.

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