Rohit Yadhati and Sreekanth Neelam -Want to change the way computer science is taught in schools!
Interview with Rohit Yadhati and Sreekanth Neelam – Founders of CST (Centinel Spark Technologies Pvt Ltd), Hyderabad. CST recently along with Secure space and SingularX organiseda big School Hackathon involving 4000 students of schools run by Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS), in 20 different locations across Telangana. We spoke with them to find out how they felt about this experience.
Tell us about your firm. What exactly do you do?
Sure. Sreekanth and I started this company together in 2016. I graduated in Engineering in 2014 and I never did coding until college because I attended classes at Vidyaranya High School which has a philosophy against computers. The first time I ever saw a computer and used it was in my engineering first year. Ever since I picked up coding I was the best in class. After that I realized and could see the issues students go through when they did coding. I used to love it but I realized that not many liked coding. Among college students the computer science engineers had much inclination towards coding. I started researching on this. I met Sreekanth along the way, and with our research we concluded that there is more buzz on show business without any interest in realizing how computers work, especially in a world where everything is running via computers.
Now, why is English so important? It is important because we need to communicate with people across the globe. When you have to communicate with people across the globe, you have to learn English. Similarly, when we deal with the computer every day, we have to understand and speak a language that the computer understands. That is where our whole journey began towards building a curriculum towards coding. After that when we started going to different schools, we approached almost all top schools in Hyderabad. Then we started working with the government, especially with Dr. R.S.Praveen Kumar – IPS. Dr. Praveen Kumar, the Secretary of Social Welfare and Travellers in Hyderabad is a true visionary who stood behind us like a rock. Not that everything went easy, but his faith and vision made the ride probable and pragmatic.
We started working on a very low scale in terms of teaching students. We understood that the idea of teaching was much more surgical. I wanted to teach my students how to code. For the first time, in the school industry – private and public, I was asked by a person that he wants me to teach students coding. I saw that as a journey towards coding and understood him to be a visionary. So, we were walking around talking to each other and he shared his vision to educate children with coding. His biggest dilemma was that he couldn’t invest crores of money in computers. And then, we decided to venture into this without computers. I was certain we could do it without computers. It was up to me to find a way out and that is what I am good at doing. It took me a couple of months to structure a curriculum to teach students coding without the use of computers.
The article you read about the 100 hour programme Hackathon, was totally without the use of computers perhaps for the first time in the world. That is why we called it Mission Code. The information exchange during that programme was tremendous. We had all kinds of coding done at levels you can’t imagine – things that engineers try to crack and stuff that interviewers ask at Microsoft and Google. Students have cracked coding to that extent. We had goose bumps seeing the success and our vision for the future was getting clearer.
What was challenging in terms of organizing something like this on a large scale?
Every step was a challenge I must say. Firstly, we are talking about a completely remote area. Reaching out to those areas itself was a challenge. We had to send trainers who were good at the curriculum we had designed. Starting from hiring such trainers to computing 100 hours of training in schools was a huge challenge.
We needed support from Principals, students, trainers, logistics, etc. It was completely challenging. For almost 50 days we were completely immersed in this and away from family. There was no concept of breaks or holidays or festivals. It was a first of its kind event. It was a huge success. If you check with the 4000 students whom we trained, their confidence level has boosted up so much that they can solve any problem, I repeat, any problem without batting an eyelid. I mean they are open to finding solutions for them at their level. They don’t shy away saying it is too tough or it can’t be done. They will come up with at least a 50% optimum solution.
The main intention was we wanted them to do is use the curriculum that we designed for real life scenarios. The family background of these students is in agriculture/labour. Their parents may not be equipped to help them in terms of career choices or relationships or job scenarios. While designing the curriculum, Sreekanth and I decided on one important thing in the process. We wanted to teach a communication tool to the students so that they can talk to computers. We decided to take one step back. Before teaching them how to learn a language, we had to teach them how to code.
Coding and learning a language are two different aspects. Coding is grammar. For example, when you listen to a person speaking on stage, within 10 minutes of his speech we get a story of almost 100-1000 pages. How do people achieve that in 10 minutes? They can give us the right grammar and logic in 10 minutes! We wanted to teach students to take such a path – how to code, how to find the right code, how to find the right solution. In order to achieve that, we had to retreat another step. That was to address the most fundamental thing our country lacks today called problem solving. Youngsters and students, today, are failing to even identify problems. Forget finding a solution. So, our aim was to lead students to identify problems first. Second, give me one product in our country which is as famous as WhatsApp or Google or even competing or getting close to it. We are a country of close to 1.2 billion people and not even one product. The reason is because we find solutions but not the right ones.
We need students to find the right solution which happens only when you can put a problem at the centre of a circle and identify every single angle to that centre, thus, streaming down to the best angle that can solve that scenario.
So, we started from problem solving, asking students to find the right solution to the problem and move ahead to codify that in the right process and then walk up to a computer to build it. Coding, programming languages, AI etc. are things that come at a much later stage. If your fundamentals are strong then that is where your activities bear fruit. If you observe, most of the ideas in the urban centre come from the rural background. They do it more naturally. Our country was the base for every single technology that exists today. This is because of our ancestors. What is happening today?
Another statistics shows that every country gets a chance to conquer the world. Our country has got a chance to conquer the world in 2015. It will end somewhere in the 2070s. The reason that every country gets a chance to conquer the world is because of the youth of the country. The age group between 9-19 years constitutes of about 30-32% of our population. This is accounted population, leave alone the unaccounted. The unaccounted is mostly minors, who are not counted yet. Imagine the possibilities with such huge population of youngsters. There is so much that we can do. We can shine and reshape our future. We can create better lives for the future generations.
To conclude, the actual problem is to identify the problem. We taught them how to indulge in solving without the use of machinery and at the end of it we gave them equipment to build their targets.
For example, someone asked me a question that by removing computers from children’s lives aren’t we limiting their source of information? To that I said that people identified things even before the advent of computers. When an apple fell on Newton’s head, he created the equation of gravity. Every single formula in the world today includes gravity. Computer screen is a window, which is just one of the aspects of the window. The actual window is your eyes and ears. You have to observe nature to understand what you can do with it. For example, in one of our projects, the idea was borrowed from the sunflower. The nature of the sunflower is to move along from the sun from start to end for the whole day.
Students applied the same concept to a solar panel. They questioned why solar panels should be stationary and why it cannot be made it like a sunflower? They put a motor and a device behind it so that the solar panel moves along with the sun.
Are we able to pull in more energy? The whole idea was based on self-sustainability. We felt that if we have been away from our families, it better be worth the effort. Families are energy to anyone. The energy we got from those 100-200 odd days was derived from these students doing something great and opening up new avenues within themselves. Every child came up with innovative and unique solutions, which even we couldn’t imagine. The outcome was outstanding.
Fantastic! So did you give them a problem to solve?
No. You are right in one aspect. The other aspect is that we gave them a whole sector. For instance, in one sector we posed a sanitation problem. The Prime Minister of the country is running after it and even then we cannot achieve 100% success. Children started writing down the problems – why it isn’t getting solved – and then evaluating it.
So, for things like people not using dust bins, public toilets, etc., this was an amazing solution that came up. The evaluation brought to light that the public toilets are not being used because it is not clean. It is not clean because they are used but not cleaned after consecutive usage. That is the difference between public toilets in malls, airports and other public toilets on the road. Constant cleaning is what is missing.
All these children whom we were corresponding with come from marginalized backgrounds. They do fight being victims of untouchability. They said that they need to remove the whole concept of untouchability – that is, why should anyone clean another’s dirt? After saying that, they suggested having a robot to clean it. So in a huge space with 5 washrooms on one side and another 5 on the other, they put a pipe which goes on all three walls of the bathrooms and it goes on to all the remaining washrooms. They then took sprinklers from the garden and attached it to each side of the pipe against the wall. For 30 seconds, when the pump turns on, pressurized water from sprinklers hit the walls and the floors with pressured water and everything gets flushed into the centre of the washroom. Now, another pipe runs below it, which releases acid and phenyl for 10 seconds. Again the water turns on and flushes it again into the centre. The third pipe running below these two releases hot air and steam which kills the remaining bacteria in the bathroom and dries it out. All this happens in a matter of 2-3 minutes and whenever you see the bathrooms are clean. In such a scenario, why wouldn’t people use washrooms?
Similarly, there were solutions that came up for so many things – food wastage, automatic smart farming. There were live solutions that came up for so many real time issues. They made automatic water taps. In summer they face water issue. So, they identified that lots of water is lost while taking a bath, washing hands etc. So, they built automatic water taps – the kind we see in airports. It senses our hand beneath it and lets out water. They made that with a different hardware which can be sourced from an ordinary hardware shop. The total cost would amount to around Rs. 150/-.
This was not any approved curriculum. It was our own curriculum. If it were a prescribed, approved curriculum from the government, it is very easy to drive it because there would be books available in the market, we could have proper planning etc. But here, everything was done in such a way that there should be fruitful result and we were not looking for publicity at all.
Usually, when you deal with the government and try to implement these things, there are lot of approvals that come in like an irresistible evil. How did you manage not to have all that?
That’s a question that demands a 365 day story. There is huge patience required here. So, both Sreekanth and I do sales, run operations, and build curriculum. So, we are blessed with all three skills. I interact closely with Dr. R.S.Praveen Kumar Sir and to the government there. And it is a big yes to approvals, lobbying issues, and a plethora of things that I cannot mention on the phone. There were numerous huddles. But, if I am going to teach students how to solve problems, I need to apply it first. I made sure about getting things done and done correctly. So, yes we had lot of approval issues. I had to fight a war – a literal uphill battle. Luckily Dr. R.S.Praveen Kumar Sir was a huge support to ensuring that youngsters like us get pushed forward with these initiatives. I give him all credit for being such a visionary and trusting our company to deliver and looking out for us to work with these children. He made sure that not just he sees it, but also 15 financial commission of the country have seen it. IAS secretaries of the state and other states also have seen this programme. They were all truly and pleasantly shocked by the way the children were performing, because our curriculum starts with identifying problems. We told them to pick up sectors and find problems in those sectors. Problems are everywhere. We just have to pick them up and build solutions.
In what way do you make teaching computer science different from what’s already going on in schools?
Our presence is there in schools across India. After this Hackathon, there are schools that reached out to us asking us to implement the curriculum that we developed, in their schools as well. Also, in real life, applying simple psychology when you have something you never appreciate it. When you have something, you want to do something more with it. People have the luxury of cell phones, computers etc. But they are failing to go beneath the surface and think of what they can do with all these things. They don’t seem to want to build anything. Our country is becoming more of a service driven and service-taking country rather than being a creative country. This stems from not appreciating the luxury that we have! Private schools are honestly not doing their job. They are doing the job but they don’t drive their students to think or do things differently. The educators 20 years back were different, completely different, because back then everything was different. There were no computers back then – whatever the guru said was followed by the child. That guru had to go through meticulous preparation to be that confident and to be the driving force behind students. The gurus in those days were, thus, stronger. Today everything is available on the internet and nobody wants to be prepared for teaching these days.
There are schools where we have completely replaced the Computer subject itself with our curriculum. In such schools there is no curriculum for computers, we teach the students all from Grade 4 to Grade 12. Our trainers deliver our curriculum in those schools. Our process of driving international schools and other schools are different. We monitored every aspect of the training scenario.
The trainers do their job, the evaluation is done in the head office, there is a whole software behind this and each student is monitored separately.
Are you saying that they don’t need to hire computer teachers, you just go in, take over that section and run the show?
Yes, we are already doing this. We even have got very good feedback for doing this.
Do they finally hold you accountable for the marks that the student acquires?
Yes, absolutely! Apart from Grade 10, all question papers are created by us. We don’t have monthly, quarterly assessments. We do assessments for each topic.
We evaluate the level of students in the beginning. If they are good, we start with an advanced curriculum. If they are not at that level, we start from the basics and bring them up gradually. After they reach a certain stage, there is a test conducted. For students who over perform we delve deeper, and we customize things for students who under perform.
I think we have to revolutionize the teaching methodology and then only can we see a change in the country. At the end of the day, the only way to change the country is through the students we have today.
Fundamentally, it is very simple.If you ask schools to give something so that we can deliver, it never happens because teachers take it as a burden. For them, there is more load added to their daily workload. But, in our case, our trainers are there and so is our headquarters. The only thing is to follow what we have designed.
Going back to the Hackathon and the schools you interacted with there, what is the next step in that space?
You need to wait another month to see what we want to do. There is a plan and a process for something which is going to happen again. I don’t think you would call me for another interview if I told it out all right now. There is a continuity planned to that.
Our worry is not about training children. Our worry is to go through a quality check. That is what we are working on. Our area of work is to find the right trainers who understand our vision and our modus operandi.
We never offer one curriculum and promise to stick to that. We offer a process, a product, and the content associated changes as per the requirement for the time we are in. For example, sixth graders tomorrow may not need what their previous batch needed. Our curriculum changes and we start from there – that is our only constant. For example, I might introduce a hacking tool after a few months depending on how our country/world is trending.
The most important thing is that our whole training is about a human being present in the room. He, the trainer, is the best AI tool in the room. No computer can judge if a child is interested, distracted etc. better than a human being. No time, no solution and no matter how well you code it, a machine cannot beat a human being.