When Ugandan educator Solomon King was 15 years old, he had a fierce passion for technology, but he lacked the support to pursue this field. He recalls, “It was extremely frustrating not to be able to have the financial, logistical, and educational support needed to pursue a passion that was outside of the standard school curriculum.” Right then, King decided that if he ever had the resources, he would “set up a space where kids who shared the same enthusiasm for technology and innovation would be free to explore their ideas.” In 2011, he began to realize his lifelong dream by founding Fundi Bots, an organization whose mission is to “use robotics training in African schools to create and inspire a new generation of problem solvers, innovators, and change-makers.”
King began by contacting a number of companies he had previously purchased electronics from to ask if they were interested in supporting the Fundi Bots program. As fate would have it, 8,000 miles away, technologist and educator Linz Craig was co-founding the education department at a popular U.S.-based electronics company, creating course materials and leading classes. At the time, Craig was the only person fielding this type of request, and he was receiving four or five daily, mostly from grad students or local organizations that were fairly well off. He recalls, “Solomon’s email struck a chord with me because he was doing the same thing I hope to do in America, but in Uganda, with much less support.” Craig sent King some hardware, books, and course materials, and was open to helping out however he could.
Around the same time, Craig also became acquainted with Sandra Washburn of Oysters & Pearls, a Ugandan education program with a focus on bringing STEM education to students in Africa. He introduced King to Washburn, and Oysters & Pearls arranged for Craig to come to Africa to conduct trainings and share his knowledge.
In preparation for his trip, Craig began putting together the mobile makerspace that he would bring with him, which included an Othermill. He first learned about the Othermill at the USA Science & Engineering Festival, and says, “I realized it is the perfect traveling piece of equipment for me as an educating technologist. It gives me hardware autonomy and a one-man hackerspace in my own right, as well as really opening the doors to the upper levels of the technology I teach.”
When the Othermill arrived at his doorstep, he enthusiastically blogged about it, writing, “What’s the best way to help a nation sidestep the industrial revolution? I figure it’s to introduce tools that allow people to create technology, instead of just consuming it.” Craig set up the Othermill in his Colorado living room but intentionally didn’t delve deep into its capabilities, explaining, “I didn’t want to be ahead of the Fundi Bots so I did little other than mill a test board. It’s sometimes the best idea to learn alongside students and teachers you are training. That way they see you learning and making mistakes and realize that no one starts out knowing everything and understanding how this stuff work.” Craig has been using the Othermill in earnest ever since his second trip to Uganda in July of 2014.
King recalls being a teenager and making circuit boards with what materials were available to him. He explains, “Copper-plated boards or perforated boards were simply out of our reach because they were not sold in-country and any version that was in-country was completely unaffordable by students.” He would literally sew circuits and components onto cereal-box cardboard using needle and copper wire. His students had also used the same technique, but with plastic instead of cardboard.
When King started Fundi Bots, he could finally afford a few perforated boards for students to learn on, but chemical etching on copper boards was still out of reach. Ever since Craig introduced the Fundi Bots to the Othermill, King says, “We’ve seen a significant shift in both structural quality, precision, and visual appearance of our boards. We are very focused on product development for our local markets, and creating circuit boards that have a high degree of accuracy is extremely important to us. The Othermill has helped us rapidly improve our prototyping process and develop better educational materials for use in our robotics clubs and during our training sessions. We are confident that with continued use of the Othermill, there will be a tremendous increase in both speed and quality of our product development pipeline.”
The Othermill has also significantly affected Craig’s work as an educator. He says, “I wouldn’t be doing PCB design classes and prototyping if I didn’t have it. I’m traveling in a country where I wake up half of the days and there is no electricity to take a hot shower. Without the Othermill I’d be at the mercy of my technology stockpile. This way I not only can teach classes on PCB design but I can also create tools and technology as I need them. I combine a little rework to take components off of existing electronic scrap, and all of a sudden I have a tremendous amount of possibilities at my disposal.”
In the short time that the Fundi Bots have had access to the Othermill, they’ve developed a diverse range of products and tools, including low-cost farm automation devices for irrigation and feed distribution, motor driver boards, electricity-generating devices, and Arduino clones for their embedded projects.
As for how the students have responded to the Othermill, King shares, “Excited is an understatement. The four months we’ve had with the Othermill have completely changed their production processes and workflows. And there’s a great energy around the fact that now their circuit boards look extremely decent, nearly close to the ones we find in some imported electronics products. Knowing that they have moved to that level of production in just four months has really pushed them to design better and more complex circuits.” Craig adds, “The sheer joy in their eyes is unbelievable. OMC, Fundi Bots, and I have brought the dream of a small lab production cycle to a group of incredibly able and earnest individuals. When these students aren’t in school or eating guavas, they’re thinking about electronics production and circuit boards. It’s awesome.”