Siblings Aditi Prasad and Deepti Rao Suchindran, COO and CIO of Robotix Learning Solutions, are on a mission to inspire the innovators of tomorrow through robotics. They are using it as a tool to develop STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills which will be an integral requisite for thriving in a technology-driven and defined future.
Both sisters are passionate about education and cutting edge technology and the inspiration behind it can be found in their own childhood. Their father played an integral role in their early years by teaching them scientific concepts in innovative and fun ways. For example, he would drop a toy ball and discuss gravity; take them out to the garden to show a butterfly, and ask questions like where it came from, why it had different colours, what it ate, etc. He sowed the seed of curiosity in them, encouraged them to ask questions and be good observers.
Their childhood is a beautiful example of sowing and nurturing a sapling till it grows into a tree which gives shade and fruits to others. The thirst for learning that Aditi and Deepti’s parents ignited in them is now impacting other young lives through what they do.
The girls are following in their father’s footsteps and are working with him to make robotics a part of young lives. They say that, “seeing young kids’ eyes light up when they play with cool robots and learn something that they didn’t know before is a fulfilling experience.”
HerStory spoke with the duo to find out more about their efforts to bring a maximum number of young girls under the umbrella of robotics and STEM education.
HerStory: Please tell us about your childhood and some of the experiences that have shaped your personality.
Aditi: Right from being chief coordinator of inter school cultural competitions to school captain of the volley-ball team to the president of the Commerce Club; I learnt to lead from the front, all thanks to my dad.
My father used to teach us scientific concepts in really innovative and fun ways when I was a little girl. His practical outlook towards our education inspired me to seek real-world applications, to understand the world around us. He also stimulated our analytical thinking. For example, I still remember the Sundays when he and I would read articles in Time magazine and discuss fundamental concepts, ideas, issues around the world. In hindsight, I think this ignited my interest in history, especially Indian history and the Constitution. It led me to Law School at ILS Law College, Pune, and later to Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, from where I did my masters. Driven by my passion for education, I went to work with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s executive education department right after graduation.
I then moved back to India, where I worked at IIT Madras’ China Studies Center – conducting research and project management for the Center. I decided to join our startup Robotix Learning Solutions where I am now the Chief Operating Officer leading the hands-on robotics education programme and the annual robotics competition, Indian Robotix League.
Deepti: The power of education and knowledge were instilled in me very early courtesy my parents. My father is a science nerd and from when I was around five (that is the earliest I can remember) he would always try to teach me the fundamental concepts of science and math in very simple and intuitive ways. For example, he would demonstrate the science behind ice skating with a thread and an ice cube. He always showed me and my sisters that technologies were cutting edge and innovative which made me realize how “cool” technology was.
I think this planted the seed of curiosity and love for discovering how things work.
Around the age of 12, I was fascinated by sharks in the movie Jaws. Fascination turned to absorption so I researched everything about different types of sharks. Noticing my interest I was asked to present the project to my class. This took me on the route to studying biology in high school.
When it was time for college I realized that the possibilities of the applications of the genome sequence were endless in biotechnology. I did my engineering undergraduate at Anna University in industrial biotechnology.
When my father introduced me to the book Phantoms in the Brain by VS Ramachandran, I got hooked on to neuroscience. This was followed by a junior research fellowship in neuroscience at the National Center for Biological Sciences and a PhD in neurophysiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Post this, I worked for a few years at a neuroscience technology startup lead by an MIT professor and soon after decided to work with my family on our innovative venture, Robotix Learning Solutions, where I am now the Chief Innovation Officer.
HerStory: The miniscule number of girls in the STEM field is glaring; if you look at the actual number or percentage the scenario is depressing. What is keeping women from education, especially STEM education?
Aditi: Gender bias starts as early as four years of age and especially if it is a field where boys dominate, it prevents young girls from selecting that field. Society’s gender stereotyping of whether girls are even capable of challenging STEM fields adds to the problem.
Yet another reason is the lack of sufficient women role models/mentors in these fields that young girls can look up to and seek inspiration. A common finding is that some young women who choose a STEM career path are more likely to leave it early because of a lack of available facilities like childcare.
HerStory: How does one bridge this gender gap?
Aditi & Deepti: By educating early and starting at preschool (two to five years) level. Teaching concepts of STEM at an early age will help. This has to go hand in hand with boosting the self confidence of girls and assuring them that they are capable of excelling in any field.
Developing these skills will help secure jobs in the heavily technology driven world, jobs that pay more than non-technology jobs. It is essential that more and more young girls are encouraged to take more risks and see the opportunities and choose challenging paths. However, more needs to be done at higher levels too, especially in companies and universities where women are pursuing these careers to support them.
HerStory: What is Robotix Learning Solutions about and what is it doing for girls’ STEM education?
Aditi: Being women and leading a robotics company and given the gender gap in STEM fields, we want to inspire more girls to go into STEM related careers. We recognize that this interest has to start at the early ages to remove gender biases in deciding whether a STEM field is interesting and carried through when choosing a career.
In our robotics education program, we start from six years upwards and encourage girls and develop their specific interests and curiosity in our programs. As part of India Robotix League, IRL, we have a girls’ team award.
Because computer science jobs are growing rapidly and these are some of the top paying jobs, one of the most important skills for young children to develop is computer programming. Statistics show that there are not that many women in computing and we want to change this. Our initiative called Indian Girls Code is a programme to inspire and educate young girls to learn to code and develop real-world programs for real-world applications.
We find that girls are interested in application-based areas and if they can solve real-world problems that they face at home, in their community, in their country etc by developing technology that is valuable to the world and personally meaningful to them, this will empower them in many ways.
We provide hands-on robotics education programs integrated into the curricula of several K-12 schools in south India. We also provide a variety of after-school programs and workshops. We host and run an annual robotics competition called the Indian Robotix League.
As part of our social initiative we believe that every child should have access to a world-class STEM education program and thus offer free education programs for young children who otherwise would not have access to such programs; such as girls from rural areas and children with disabilities.
HerStory: Tell us a bit more about the Indian Girls Code.
Deepti: Our initiative called Indian Girls Code is a program to inspire and educate young girls to learn to code and develop real-world programs for real-world applications. We find that girls are interested in application-based areas. If they can solve real-world problems that they face at home, in their community, in their country etc by developing technology that is valuable to the world and personally meaningful to them, this will empower them in many ways. We are starting out with a program at the Annai Ashram, an all-girls orphanage in Trichy, and plan to expand.
HerStory: How do you convince parents to send girls to study STEM?
Aditi: Gender bias is a very common challenge we face with parents thinking that robotics is a field for boys. What we are trying to do is to show the real-world application side of STEM and robotics that attracts parents and interests young girls to see value in developing technology that is meaningful to the world. We hope to be introducing exciting new challenges at IRL that bring more girls to the field.
HerStory: How are you measuring the impact?
Aditi: We are collecting metrics for inspiring students by educating more children, creating world-class curriculum that is integrated into more schools, creating new challenges in our competition that brings in more participants and bridging the gender gap by educating more young women in STEM, robotics and coding.
HerStory: What keeps you motivated?
Aditi and Deepti: Kids! Knowing that there is a new generation of kids that will understand things in such a sophisticated way at such an early age and create innovations of tomorrow is what keeps us motivated. Knowing that we can make even a small difference in a child’s life is our source of strength.