Nurturing STEM Education in Youth Through Robotics

Future Africa recently hosted a group of vibrant and enthusiastic young budding scientists to pilot a Robotics and Coding Course on the 30th of July, 2022. This is part of the ‘Youth in STEM Programme’ aimed at exposing school learners to practical and theoretical science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) activities to encourage them to follow STEM careers in future. The course gives learners basic knowledge and understanding in robotics and coding whilst promoting skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

For this pilot, the audience consisted of leaners aged 8-12 years from the National Zoological Garden ZooClub. The learners hailed from a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds and schools from across Pretoria. “They call themselves the Zookies and were extremely receptive, took an active part in the exercises and gave wonderful feedback. It was good to see the course content well received from across a range of users,” said facilitator Tedson Nkoana.

Nkoana is the project coordinator for the Future Africa Research Chair in People, Health, and Place held by Professor Wanda Markotter. As a driver for strengthening transdisciplinarity and One Health within and beyond University of Pretoria, it is vital to promote the development of STEM in youth as they will become professionals in this space one day. The Chair runs programmes for youth already in academia and younger ones, who are the next generation of academics, through programmes that provide skills and training in multiple disciplines. The ‘Youth in STEM programme’ is one such programme and focuses on getting learners to embrace the STEM learning experience outside the classroom with the application of resources from the University of Pretoria and collaborators within the One Health Network.

“We use informal, out-of-school settings. Our participants normally come from low resource schools which impedes learning. We target the STEM-gaps – identified as most lacking in schools, not just in South Africa, but across the continent. Skills acquired through STEM education address important challenges in society including food security, information and communication technology, energy production, and trade. Youth who are trained in STEM skills from an early age will be in a better position to meet these challenges as part of the workforce or entrepreneurs in STEM-related industries.” said Tedson Nkoana

Since this pilot program is focused on learners with limited computer skills, the Robotics and Coding course started off with manual coding in a practical peer group activity where some participants took on the role of the “robot” and others the “coder”. The coders then had to instruct their “robots” as a way of encouraging participation and establishing the foundations of coding.

Turning up the heat, the groups also competed against each other to code a robot bird to fly to its nest by using mathematical skills. Zookies were able to track the flight of their bird and to determine if it made it to the nest. “Kids learn from their mistakes and seeing their calculations came to life on screen made them understand the fundamentals and practical applications of coding. It is very gratifying to see the learners get enthusiastic when theory at school come to life in this course.”

In a final activity the learners had to complete a half-built robot and instruct it with code. The aim of this exercise is to broaden the inter-connectedness of what a robot cannot do if it is not wired correctly, despite perfect coding. The object of the exercise is to learn from their own and their peers’ mistakes and to reflect on their progress in the last session of the day.

The last part of the course introduced Zookies to the Junior Tukkie e-learning platform on juniortukkie platform which “provides learning assistance in the form of videos and PDFs which can be accessed either online or off-line via a flash drive to their headmaster and then via their smartphones,” Nkoana explained.For the Zookies, the next step in the program is a STEM literacy and essay-writing competition where learners will be trained in basic reading, writing, and presenting skills using information sourced from popular articles on STEM topics. Learners will further be exposed to different careers in STEM through a job shadowing opportunity with professionals from UP and external collaborators.

With the pilot having been a resounding success, the next step is to roll out the materials in schools in rural areas who lacks the basic resources. Information about these activities and future Robotics and Coding courses can be obtained from Nkoana at

Heidi Sonnekus | FAR-LeaF Program