Diamonds in the Rough

Skilling an entire generation — for a world evolving at an exponential pace — is the “grand challenge” of our times.

Compounding this challenge is the widening gap between “low resource” and “high resource” environments. The “poor of skill” get poorer — so to speak — in absence of infrastructure, trainers, and exposure to opportunities. This has a spiraling impact : a world eventually split into Elysium and Tartarus.

Elysium and Tartarus or the State of Final Retribution, 1791, by Barry James (from mutualart.com)

Few are able to fathom the sheer magnitude of this challenge … that includes educators, corporations, governments, parents… Interestingly the issue is often cast in very narrow terms. For example, currently it’s fashionable to talk about the AI-powered future, and how in a world run by machines, we should all perhaps focus on “soft skills”. Well, if a future where skilled people are jostling for room with AI sounds scary, imagine one where most of the population is unskilled (or “soft skilled”) !

Besides, there’s a lot more changing in our world besides AI going mainstream. For instance we could run out of fresh water [1] , well before the AI apocalypse hits !

What remains true, is that we need “all hands on deck” from our next generation — AI-assisted or not. And a LOT of that next generation, is currently in low-resource environments.

So we need to get to work…

I write this article as we start our STEM outreach in low resource environments. STEM is not a panacea (another fashionable topic [2]). Yes, a kid in a low resource environment probably needs soft skills as much as the other guy/gal … But when we’re talking coverage, STEM beats anything else [3].

In the Indian context, “low resource” environments for education typically include government schools, and other not-for-profit setups. Our early exploration suggests that not only are there high potential students in these environments — they are actually more likely to pick “high impact” problems to solve (This insight brought to you by… context ! 😀)

So while some of the best minds of our generation are focused on getting more ad clicks, getting groceries delivered to your door, helping you find a partner etc, these kids seem to have more interest in improving agriculture, water supply, better market access for their parents’ professions, cheaper healthcare in their village or town, etc. Armed with the right training, we believe they would have the motivation and “staying power” to fix what they set out to fix.

In our trade, superhero(ine) analogies work very well with kids — so let’s introduce our millenial protagonists for the rest of this story. (Hope you have your urban dictionaries and pop culture references handy!)

The characters of Amara Namani (Pacific Rim — Uprising) and Princess Shuri (Black Panther)

Enter cadet Amara Namani from the Pan Pacific Defence Corps. Inventor of SCRAPPER — a first-of-a-kind, single-pilot rogue Jaeger, built from scrap parts in a garage. She represents our “low resource” camp.

Representing our “high resource” camp is Princess Shuri — innovator responsible for much of Wakanda’s modern technology. Shuri is the beneficiary of massive resources — a lab that would put Caltech to shame, full access to the Avengers, and loads of the wonder element Vibranium. Basically as “high resource” as you can get !

(Left) Amara’s “Scrapper” — a rogue Jaeger built in a garage. (Right) Shuri’s high-tech lab in Wakanda.

At Pacific Rim Robotics, we started with urban kids from high-resource families and schools. They are our Shuris. Now, with our outreach into low resource environments, we have the privilege of working with a lot of Amaras.

Somewhat predictably, we find our Amaras more focused and “hungry”. As they progress, they often show remarkable maturity and clarity — in what they would like to do with the new knowledge and access. So like Amara, if they see the need for a single-pilot Jaeger to defend themselves, well they’ll just pull together scrap parts and stand one up.

Interestingly it’s harder with the Shuris ! You may find them prone to the trap of what you could call “first world” problems. Or worse yet, disengaged. The discussion here tends to be : “Hey, look at all this Vibranium you have lying around. Wanna solve world hunger … ?” And occasionally we get a few who want to.

Our Amaras and Shuris work closely together — we’re placing our bets on them, to solve the greatest challenges of our times. But they are diamonds in the rough. As educators we have a tremendous responsibility that goes beyond pedagogy. STEM will be a potent tool in their arsenal. But they need guidance and experience to choose their battles well, learn to collaborate in the face of constraints, and understand how to pull together an ecosystem in support of their missions.

At Pacific Rim, we probably learn as much from our students as they learn from us — they help us “refine” our mission. Based on what we’re learning working with our Amaras and Shuris, we are embarking on a format we call “grand challenges”. Students pick a challenge, where instead of looking at small pieces of the puzzle as “science projects”, they look at the problem holistically — including challenges of processes, people, resource constraints, whether their solution is sustainable or not, etc. The idea is to prepare them more fully — for the wide spectrum of challenges and opportunities in front of them.

So far our students have come up with three of these — precision agriculture, disaster management, and rural healthcare. They are figuring these out — both in the field, as well as in the lab.

We are excited and can’t wait to share the outcomes !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *