In 2014, Cogmation Robotics partnered with First Peoples Development Inc. to introduce the world of software development and coding to youth in remote Manitoba First Nations communities. SAY sat down with Chris Schulz, General Manager and Vice President of Special Projects at Cogmation Robotics and Barb Moran, Project Coordinator at First Peoples Development Inc. (FPDI) who manages this program, to find out more about the FPDI First Nations Robotics Program and its impact on career development for Indigenous youth.
SAY: What is the First Nations Robotics Program and how did it start?
Schulz: The Robotics Program started with the idea of robotics workshops in conjunction with the Information Communications Technology Association of Manitoba (ICTAM).
For many years the ICTAM held an I.T. Career day where Aboriginal students gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and toured various technology companies, but they wanted to do more. They were hoping to do something more interactive than having students watch people ‘work’ so they called Cogmation and the idea of hosting robotics workshops was born.
I wasn’t sure that it was going to work – it was just me teaching about 50 students all at once. Surprisingly, the students had a good time. That one-day workshop turned into a two-week workshop with the help and partnership of Frontier School Division.
Eventually, there was more demand to teach the workshops than there were people to do it (just me).
SAY: What is the primary objective of the First Nations Robotics Program?
Schulz: The primary goal of the program is career exploration and discovery. Many of the great jobs in Engineering and Technology require some form of post-secondary training. Unfortunately, too many of our Indigenous youth disconnect from the school system because of either peer pressure or because they simply can’t relate to what they are seeing.
Things are changing. Over the years, we have had instructors marvel when students who don’t usually show up for class come to a robotics workshop with a friend because this is something that really speaks to them.
One of our best success stories involves a group of students in Grand Rapids, Manitoba, who insisted on working during their school in-service day because they were excited about seeing their robotic creations come to life.
SAY: How did the partnership with First Peoples Development Inc. come about?
Schulz: In 2015 we partnered with First Peoples Development Inc. (FPDI) to jointly deliver the Robotics program to the thirty-nine First Nations FPDI works with.
Moran: FPDI is a not for profit organization with a mandate of training to employment. This particular program, the FPDI
First Nations Robotics Program, is funded by the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC)’s First Nations and Inuit Youth Employment Strategy (FNIYES). We scouted various universities and colleges and interviewed a number of Indigenous youth to become First Peoples Development Robotics instructors (ages 18- 30) to act as mentors and teachers to deliver the program to various First Nations in Manitoba.
Schulz/Moran: This was a powerful idea, because for the most part the selected instructors had no previous knowledge of computer programming, however they were eager to learn and since they had grown-up in the communities they were now teaching in, they were able to relate to some of the challenges our students faced.
SAY: How many Indigenous youth were recruited to take the initial program? Tell us more about the process.
Schulz/Moran: Initially, Cogmation and FPDI recruited 20 Indigenous youth and convinced them that learning about coding didn’t have to be hard. We jointly interviewed approximately 10 youth and FPDI hired 6 eager youth to learn robotics.
Computers think in 1’s and 0’s. ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. So the solution to every problem has to be expressed as a series of individual steps. Unfortunately, many people grow-up thinking that creating software is this difficult thing that you have to be a genius to master – thanks to the movies where nerdy computer hackers are seen rapidly typing hieroglyphic text to do seemingly otherworldly things.
Moran: The model FPDI created with Cogmation’s assistance looked to create two balanced teams of three people each. Ideally, each group would be comprised of a combination of men and women, some with technical skills, and others with great presentation and people skills. Each group had at least one driver in it and together the two groups split their time, with one group covering Western Manitoba and the other covering First Nation communities in Eastern Manitoba.
One of the FPDI’s Robotics instructors was once a student in the program, in Nelson House Cree Nation – she liked it enough to learn the skills involved in becoming one of FPDI’s trainees so that she can share her enthusiasm and passion for robotics with others.
SAY: How long is the certification program and what does it mean to be a “graduate”?
Schulz: The FPDI Robotics instructors were trained for four weeks in an intensive six-hour daily workshop for a total of 120 hours of instruction. The first two weeks focus on exploring the technology, how the hardware works and learning about introductory computer science concepts. Weeks three and four focus on helping the students learn presentation and classroom management skills.
After a month of training, they became FPDI Robotics certified instructors, meaning that they have mastered the concepts required to facilitate robotics workshops on their own. It is the hope and intention of the program that the youth who are trained can act as mentors when they return to their communities.
SAY: Why is a program like the FPDI First Nations Robotics Program important?
Moran: The idea of exposing more and more of our Indigenous youth to careers in the sciences, engineering and technology isn’t just a Manitoba issue; it’s a Canada wide challenge that needs to be solved. FPDI recognized that First Nations youth had less exposure to IT-related careers and wanted to introduce this into First Nation learning, and with the partnership of Cogmation this became a reality.
Schulz: How do we connect and engage one of our most youthful and fastest growing demographics to the well-paying jobs of tomorrow?
You can even argue that this is a global problem because there are many countries like Canada that have urbanized densely populated belts with rural and remote populations who do not get access to the same types of educational opportunities (think of the Australian outback or the Brazilian Amazon rainforests).
SAY: What’s next for the program?
Schulz/Moran: We hope to continue getting FPDI Instructors in front of audiences of curious Indigenous youth, and since the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) covered the First Peoples Development Inc. Robotics graduation in August 2017 there has been an upsurge of groups in Saskatchewan and Ontario looking to implement a similar program.
We are in the early stages of discussion with Innovation Saskatchewan, a government agency that provides recommendations and advice to the Saskatchewan Government regarding its strategic direction in the areas of research, development, science and technology. They see robotics as an enticing means to get more Indigenous youth involved in careers in science and technology. We have also recently signed a deal with FIRST Robotics Canada to expand an already very successful youth robotics program (35,000 members from across Canada including students and teachers). They are interested in using Cogmation’s Virtual Robotics Toolkit – a LEGO Mindstorms simulator – to connect with rural, remote and underprivileged children who might not otherwise have the money to afford equipment or have access to adult mentors.
SAY: How can people get involved?
Schulz/Moran: Anyone interested in the youth robotics program is encouraged to reach out to us at email@example.com or to visit us on the web at http://www.virtualrobotgames.com. Individuals can also contact Barb Moran at First Peoples Development Inc. at 204-987-9570 or firstname.lastname@example.org.