Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the career path that led you to the Nairobi FabLab Robotics Outreach Program (also include a few words about your participation in the 3D4D Challenge). Have you encountered any obstacles on your path to pursuing your studies and if so, how have you generally handled your challenges and adversity?
Ombatti: I have an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University in Nairobi in Kenya. During my time as a student, I was an avid member of the Nairobi FabLab where I was involved in several projects. One of the projects that I championed during my time at the FabLab was the FabLab Robotics Outreach Program. This initiative was ran by engineering students and it aimed at teaching STEM to children primarily from less privileged backgrounds in Kenya. Another personal project that I was involved in is 'Happy Feet'. This is a project that avails custom and 3D printed shoes for people with deformed, primarily as a result of the jigger sand flea menace in Kenya. The solution won a spot as one of the seven finalists in the 3D4D (3D for Development) Challenge that was held in 2012 in London. The competition invited people to submit ideas of solutions that leveraged 3D printing technology to solve a problem in the developing world. Sadly, I did not win. But I continue to work on Happy Feet to date.
With respect to my studies, I would say that the main challenge was the fact that the learning was very theoretical despite the fact that it was a practical field. And the practical part was outdated and almost obsolete. I yearned for more. And I needed it if I was to make it in today's world and I was lucky enough to have the FabLab for that. Through the FabLab I got to nurture my passion for tinkering and making as I learnt all sorts of things.
Q: Tell us about the Nairobi FabLab Robotics Outreach Program: Why was it created and by whom? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Ombatti: The FabLab Robotics Outreach Program was formally started sometime before 2009 though it was more aggressively taken up by a group of engineering students in 2009. The group was lead by myself, Roy Ombatti and Juliet Wanyiri. The program was created to bridge the gap within our education system. We wanted to expose children to STEM early on and fight the stigma against Math and the Sciences. Our target was primarily the children from less privileged households in Nairobi, mostly from the slums settlements. We developed the curriculum ourselves and borrowed a lot from the FabLab community teaching everything from coding to actual hardware and making. Our situation was unique as we were limited by access to funds. We therefore had to be creative with our approach. We started using common materials to teach and developed projects around those. We adopted a lot of design thinking and taught the children how to solve problems around them using the materials they have access to. The program is still on-going though under the current flock of engineering students at the FabLab.
Q: Please elaborate on 3 of the Nairobi FabLab Robotics Outreach Programs’ initiatives: (1) The National Hidden Talents Academy; (2) Tech Kidz Club; and (3) FunKidz Tech Club?
Ombatti: The National Hidden Talents Academy is a children's center in Nairobi that supports and educates rehabilitated street children. The center is in Nairobi's Dagoretti area. We often times ran sessions with their students teaching them aspects of robotics and engineering in a cool and fun way.
Tech Kidz Club was an initiative that started after we noticed that our program was gaining traction and drawing a lot of interest. We hosted week-long sessions at the FabLab where kids came over during school holidays and we exposed them to tools, machines and projects within the Fablab.
Funkidz Tech Club was an initiative that was taken up by two other organizations: Funkidz Kenya and Safaricom Ltd in collaboration with the Nairobi FabLab. This was as a result of the scaling of our work as we attempted to reach out to more students working with more partners.
Q: Are youth, technology and entrepreneurship a ‘winning combination’, in your estimation?
Ombatti: Absolutely! The convergence of youth, technology and entrepreneurship should lead to the magic that is innovation. The older generations have done their part. It's not time for the youth to come up with innovative solutions and create opportunities that improve their livelihoods as well as those of people around them. Technology is where the world is headed and so the youth should look into using this as a tool for solving their problems where applicable (this is not to say that we should swat all flies with a hammer). And the only way to make the solutions developed sustainable is through entrepreneurship.
Q: In your opinion, what groups in Kenya are the most underrepresented in STEM? Secondly, what key steps should we undertake to promote scientific literacy and STEM amongst these specific science and technology underrepresented groups?
Ombatti: The most underrepresented in STEM in Kenya are the children from marginalized communities and institutions. The education system is inherently flawed and there needs to be drastic changes in order to promote scientific literacy and give those children a better chance at life. Inasmuch as bottom-up efforts and approaches are good, sadly they are not enough for impactful, systemic and sustainable change. The Government has to play a more prominent role and step in and develop a decent top-down approach that will reach more of the adversely affected children. The government has no choice but to invest in education so as to invest in the future of Kenya. Gone are the days of cramming textbooks to pass standardized tests and examinations.
Q: Finally, in your view, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law to the socio-economic development of Kenya?
Ombatti: STEM, if properly embraced, will go a long way in brewing the right ingredients for the next batch of innovators through whom Kenya will experience meaningful change. I believe that we can solve our own problems through innovative, homegrown solutions. My favorite buzzword is impact because through innovation, technology and entrepreneurship we can develop these solutions and therefore have impact. Poverty is our main problem and I think Africans are the ones to solve African problems, because at the very least, we are the ones who understand our problems best: This can only be done by breeding the next generation of creative thinkers by fostering STEM education at an early age. Through this, our kids will be more active parts of the solution rather than complaining about the problems and doing nothing more about it.