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Realizing A Dream: A Young Roboticist’s Journey in Sierra Leone

Realizing A Dream: A Young Roboticist’s Journey in Sierra Leone

I love going to church on Sundays with my family in Sierra Leone. For me, it is a moment to reflect and take a breath. It is certainly not where I expect to have conversations with students about how innovation and robotics can shape Sierra Leone’s growth.

When a young boy chased after me as I left church to inquire about how I might help him realize his vision of building a robot and starting a robotics association in Sierra Leone, I was certainly startled. I was surprised not by the fact that he knew which church I attended and waited to track me down on the way home, but rather, that my prayer in church was already being answered. The urge among young people in Sierra Leone to become active problem-solvers was starting to catch on.

Mohamed S. Harding is a 17-year old student at Prince of Wales secondary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Having professed his interest in robotics and engineering to his uncle, who then told him about Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mohamed decided to take matters into his own hands and sought me out. I told him about Innovate Salone and the opportunity that the initiative extends to young people in Sierra Leone to experience the creative freedom so valued at MIT. As an action step, I mentioned to Mohamed a competition I knew that challenged anyone to design a robot for US$10.

While completing one of MIT’s most popular robotics classes through MIT OpenCourseWare, Mohamed used recycled materials to design and manufacture a robot in his bedroom. Describing his product, he says, “I used a chip, which I extracted it from a spoiled toy, and the components of dinosaur legs which have a gear system to make robot arms. The trunk has a USB webcam and LED lights to spy.” Mohamed’s dream is to become an engineer and promote robotics in Sierra Leone — and he will stop at nothing to accomplish that goal. He has taken at least three online college-level classes from MIT and is hungry for more.

In January 2013, Innovate Salone collaborated with SparkFun’s Lindsay Levkoff to set up two Inventor’s Kit Labpacks in Sierra Leone. The students use the kits to explore rapid prototyping and complement their learning at Prince of Wales. Other students, staff and alumni joined Mohamed and Kelvin Doe to participate in a workshop I led with a colleague Kate Krontiris from Reboot (a design research consultancy that helps the world’s leading organizations become more responsive to the communities they serve).

Mohamed has continued to use the Arduino electronic prototyping platform and other parts in the kit to build his robot and to teach other students how to invent their own creations. He is putting together a team from his school to participate in the Innovate Salone 2013 competition. From the numerous Facebook messages he sends me with questions on a whole variety of topics, I am confident that he and his colleagues will follow through with their proposed projects, whether as finalists through our competition or not. And if there is anyone who is positioned to champion robotics in Sierra Leone, it will be the youth of Sierra Leone.

With Mohamed and the band of creative thinkers we are seeing in Sierra Leone, our generation is perfectly placed to clear our own hurdles in the path toward national development. Whether it be at church, in the street, or in a lab; it is exciting to see that Sierra Leonean youth are actively participating in such necessary change. To stay on this path, we need to sustain the curiosity, play and action present in young people while investing in them and their ideas, and we need to build an ecosystem where local innovations are supported and can succeed.

by David Sengeh, MIT Media Lab, USA

by David Sengeh, MIT Media Lab, USA

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