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IEEE Smart Village: Preparing Students to Be Productive Participants in Increasingly Technology-Based Economies

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Jude Numfor, a veteran IEEE Smart Village (ISV) entrepreneur, says the biggest challenge for his company, Renewable Energy Innovators, Cameroon, is recruiting staff with the technical skills and hands on experience needed to go to work on day one. This problem is common in many lower income countries where the school curriculum is often heavily focused on preparing students to pass tests. The test-based approach to teaching limits the teacher’s ability to foster a holistic understanding of the subject matter, nurture critical thinking skills or introduce hands-on skills resulting in the students being ill prepared to enter the workforce.

ISV President Dr. Rajan Kapur, who received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, made a similar observation when he moved to the United States for graduate school almost fifty years ago. Kapur acknowledged, “While I was equal in book learning, the other students had significantly more hands-on skills than I could ever dream off. In the following decades it became clear to me that early childhood exposure to hand tools, power tools and other life skills, augmented by implicit mentorship were key enablers of this competitive advantage”.  Prof. Sudha Balagopalan, Dean of Engineering at the Vidya Academy of Science and Technology, Kerala, India (VAST), has made similar observations based on her own experiences.

Together, Kapur and Balagopalan realized that ISV and its three-pillar approach for livelihood improvement: (1) productive use of technology, (2) education and (3) enterprise development is well positioned to help address this problem. Under its Education for Livelihood Pillar, ISV is launching a hands-on STEM learning initiative for children as young as 10 years called the Vocational Awareness Initiative (VAI), through its Regionals Working Groups. To help VAI succeed, Balagopalan has taken on the role of the Chair of the ISV South Asia Regional Working Group VAI. Central to the success of VAI will be mentorship.

ISV is starting small. Pilots have been launched by four teams in five states in India. The teams are made up of ISV volunteers, faculty and ‘Near Peer’ mentors who use Snap CircuitsTM kits to enable students to learn about electrical technology by encouraging youthful curiosity that is often suppressed in the core curriculum in developing countries. In preparing children for increasingly electrified economies, we will also prepare them to address climate change. The teams are also preparing training videos, managing language disparities, raising funds, and recruiting partners. Thus far 20 schools and nearly a thousand learners are benefiting from the pilot. Thanks to VAI, the learners get exposure to skill­-oriented projects and participate in creative hands-on opportunities which will bring them from a ‘classroom-only world’ to a ‘field-based learning’ world. The learners are not the only beneficiaries. The ‘Near Peer’ mentors, who are university students from engineering colleges and polytechnic institutes, grow intellectually and personally by interacting with their younger peers, developing teamwork and leadership qualities that will distinguish them in their own careers.

“Near peer” mentoring: 18-year-old mentoring 11-year-olds
“Near peer” mentoring: 18-year-old mentoring 11-year-olds

Scaling from the current pilot stage to a pan-India network model involving institutions, organizations, governments, schools, and universities that reaches hundreds of millions of young learners will lead to a transformation in education methods and policies, orienting the philosophy towards skill-based learning rather than test-based learning. With a foundation of skills such as these, the children and mentors will be better prepared to be productive participants in increasingly technology-based economies.

ISV is excited to add the Vocational Awareness Initiative to its activities and invites your participation in this journey. There are several ways to help.

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