Mohammed is unlocking the potential of Egypt’s youth by shifting them away from the role of passive recipients of an instructor-led education to one in which they learn through hands on experimentation. More than the actual subject matter, students walk away with a new proficiency in the critical “soft skills” currently systematically neglected in the country’s educational institutions, but which define the modern economy.
Mohammed seeks to bring science to life for young Egyptians because he believes such an experience will cultivate in them the self-confidence, creativity, resourcefulness, and teamwork desperately needed to drive a new Egypt.His Competition for Robot Design (CORD) challenges groups of young people to create a robot that moves, utilizing only the everyday materials littering their homes or communities, and very low cost store-bought items, if necessary. This model creates a leveling effect and welcomes the participation of all socio-economic classes. The competition’s “no-prior-knowledge-necessary” aspect further democratizes the opportunity.
Mohammed focuses on robots, in particular, recognizing that these complex, dynamic machines are often seen as the epitome of a sophisticated, scientific world unattainable to the average person. Once a young person builds such a machine with nothing but the materials lying around him or her and a team of peers, much of what he or she had previously –even ifsubconsciously – dismissed as impossible suddenly seems doable. Some of these young people will go on to pursue science in more depth,which Mohammed also nurtures through his Robo Academy, providing the country with the well-rounded science minds so instrumental in the 21st century. Others will bring these newly cultivated skills to the other multitude of other arenas calling out for innovation.
While the competition focuses on ages 18 – 25, Mohammed is in the process of creating opportunities for even younger people to engage in a similar experience. After an initial pilot that included 80 children between the ages of 8 and 12, for example, he is working with the Ministry of Education and a large Egyptian citizen sector organization to implement a robot-creating curriculum – whose English name means “Best Things come from Nothing” – into the country’s public schools.
Children and young people do not get practical experience with science – or anything else – as part of their education in Egypt. A recent UNICEF report indicates that the traditional methods of “chalk and talk” are still in practice, where students are expected to listen to a lecture and copy in their notebooks notes written on the blackboard, which they then recite back on exams. This method allows for only a small number of students to excel in the classroom, and those who do, often find their knowledge at odds and insufficient to build or participate in the modern economy, whichdemands critical thinking, problem solving skills, teamwork, and innovation, rather than rote memorization.
The official CORD competition takes place over the course of one 8 – 10 hour day. After an initial introduction, CORD instructor-volunteers, also known as CORDians,host an interactive workshop with participants to review the basics of robotic mechanisms. Participants then break into their teams (usually composed of three young people) and begin attempting to build their robots using only the low cost materials they have brought with them and their recently acquired knowledge. The robots are built with the goal of their being able to cross a “playground” that changes for each competition —- essentially a maze with slopes, sharp corners, and other obstacles. After this round of trial and error, with CORDians on hand to provide support, the actual competition starts and all teams that are able to create a robot that successfully completes the maze are awarded a prize.
While competition day draws the publicity, Mohammed finds the 3 – 5 weeks preceding the competition the most integral. It is during this time that CORDians host workshops that take competition participants through the journey of making something out of nothing.Beyond the technical information of robotics, whichthey share and participants practice, a series of soft skills are developed. CORDians challenge participants to recognize the resources embedded within the team, while also not being afraid to be bold, make a decision and then reassess a game plan based on the results. When participants complain that the 4kg weight limit is inhibiting, CORDians remind them that any given item can take on more strength based on how it is incorporated into the design of the robot.
Mohammed has captured these key soft skills, including his “nine creative attitudes” into a curriculum from which CORDians are trained. One key aspect of this curriculum includes facilitated dialogue around Egyptian scientific achievement. Not only are young people reminded of just how much of a scientific marvel the pyramids are, but they are asked if they think Egypt is done contributing to the world – in science and beyond.
First launchedin 2007 as a student organization at Ain Shams University, where Mohammed was completing an engineering degree, CORDhas seen both a numerical and geographic expansion. Up from 15 teams all based out of one campus in the first year, the number of teams shot up to 1,000 in 2011, participating in competitions spread across 14 universities and youth centers in a fifth of Egypt’s governorates. More important to Mohammed, however, is the fact that despite only six percent of robots created that first year successfully completed the playground (this number is now up to 90 percent), the enthusiasm was so high after the experience that 80 percent of the participants signed up to become formal or informal members of CORD and volunteered to initiate future competitions. This model of participants becoming CORDians has continued and every week groups of these volunteers go to different campuses to recruit new participants and train new facilitators to host competitions. They set up a booth in the most exposed part of campus and begin taking apart and putting together robots that move around, encouraging all those standing by with bewildered or amused expressions to come get a closer look. In this same way, competitions are also held in public spaces, serving to recruit even more people on competition day.
This outreach, combined with a traditional and social media strategy, has seen competitions held as far north as Alexandria and as far south as Aswan. It was during a competition in a youth center in Aswan, one of Egypt’s poorer cities, that CORD received an offer to be hosted in the training facilities attached to all of the engineering institutes in Egypt. After being impressed that the competitions were encouraging more students to come to class and that up to 85% of the teams were composed of all women, the lead coordinator signed up to do all he could to promote the competitions across the country.
Parents have also proven to be emphatic supporters of CORD, with large numbers showing up to competition day. For this reason, and recognizing how much television is consumed in Egyptian society, Mohammed is currently working to create a public television program where he can publicize the benefits of robot design to children as well as parents who are looking for an offline, group substitute for online video games. The program will be interactive, providing quick tips on the basics, which will then be used to take apart and put together various household items.
Mohammed has already had great success with the media, which has written about CORD in the country’s largest newspapers, aired footage from competitions during the evening news, and hosted members of the team on Cairo’s number one radio station and popular television youth program.
While CORD actively recruits young people from all academic backgrounds for its competitions – indeed a team from the medical faculty won the very first CORD competition – Mohammed is also focused on penetrating the minds of engineering students even further in order to cultivate a better equipped group of people to tackle the country’s technological needs. His Robo Academy partners with engineering schools and builds on the interactive nature of CORD competitions with more specialized and advanced techniques. More importantly, it brings together students from across the various engineering disciplines to fight the current siloeing that pervades the field. Mohammed is also looking to see how he can also include students from entirely different faculties into various sessions. Working together, these groups begin to take on new perspectives and generate new skill sets to solve problems. Mohammed is also looking to link the Robo Academy to the real needs of the private sector, and has already enlisted one company that makes dishwashers and refrigerators to provide case studies for studies based on real problems. CORD will also do a team training with the staff of this company, which was the initial reason the company approached Mohammed.
In order to scale his work, Mohammed is in the process of registering CORD as a CSO and incorporating staff to collaborate with the 300 CORDians currently fueling the organization’s efforts.
With a father who is a rocket scientist and astronaut, Mohammed grew up in a home full of high expectations. While he was a solid academic performer, Mohammed was an introvert and felt most comfortable when he was tinkering in the corners. He created his first robot when he was ten, which performed chemical reactions that were deemed too dangerous to be carried out at school. However, after one teacher challenged him to use his creativity to give a lesson on the solar system to the class, Mohammed found that students were paying attention and his nerves went away. He beganto give interactive presentations to his classmates about how to take a complicated scientific concept and simplify it with basic materials – often those previously headed for the trash bin.
From this perspective that everyone has the power to think and render solutions if given the right tools and orientation, Mohammed launched CORD during his university years. He remains steadfast in his unwillingness to accept the Egyptian education system as is — one in which an entire generation is being lost.