Training Nigeria’s future engineers, one robot at a time

Temitope Oladokun is a force to be reckoned with. The tagline on her personal website reads, “I am on a mission to democratize Artificial Intelligence and Robotics in Nigeria.” And she’s doing just that.

FierceElectronics recently had a Zoom call with Oladokun—who also works as an AI engineer full time--to learn more about her experience teaching robotics to middle and high school students in Lagos, Nigeria, and working to fulfill her goal of spreading science and technology literacy.

FE: Why robotics?

Oladokun: I graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Maiduguri, with a primary focus in software engineering. Afterward I became interested in robotics, it’s such a fascinating interdisciplinary field--but first I had to find out what skills that I as a trained programmer would need to develop. Google became my friend! The first thing I learned is that you need to have a knowledge of hardware. But in Nigeria it is quite expensive to buy these kits, and I realized I would need to have determination to pursue this education.

FE: What did that mean for you?

Oladokun: I frequented an electronics store in Nigeria, but sometimes I did not have enough money to pay even $24 for a kit. At first they did not know me and would let me take only the parts I could pay for, but after I gained credibility with them and could prove I was a reliable customer, the store would let me take parts and pay them later when I had the money. After I mastered my own hands-on skills working with these kits, I decided I wanted to share my knowledge by launching an event and teaching students for free.

FE: What inspired you to teach kids?

Oladokun: My goal is to spread science and technology literacy in Nigeria, and I particularly want to encourage girls to come into the field of robotics. I think it’s important to expose young people to lots of experiences that will ultimately help to shape who they become. I view my role as encouraging my students to try out new things. In the process, some of them hopefully will wind up falling in love with the technology and go on to be robotics engineers. Some will not, of course, but they will have the knowledge and the power to make that choice.

FE: How difficult was it to work with schools directly?

Oladokun: Early on, I just went to some schools and they immediately asked which company I was with. When I told them it was just me, they informed me that I would need an official document, so that is when I formed my own company, TechieGeeks. Honestly, at the beginning I didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing--I was an engineer who was trying to become a teacher. Now, my program syncs up with the program at several schools. I go to the classroom twice a week [pre-Covid] as part of a ten-week course on robotics, which includes teaching the students how to use a computer, program, and create something using a Legos kit.  Currently it’s all me—I would love to have partners, but now I am paying for the kits that I provide for the class.

FE: What sorts of projects do the kids come up with?

Oladokun: I try to bring in concepts that I’m reading about in research papers, and a recent one was on locomotion and it was interesting to see how they transformed that concept on their own. Recently, they built a humanoid with Legos from scratch which was very cool.

FE: What keeps you going?

Oladokun: I have trained close to 100 kids since I started this project. What is rewarding to me is to see how much the kids are like sponges, just soaking up the information. At the end of the first year, I was like “Wow!” And I knew that I was doing something good, even if nobody else knew what I was doing.

RELATED: Misty the robot graces Fierce AI Week in engineering