Trashbots Aims to Bring Inexpensive Robotics Kits to Students

Paul Austin, Rohit and Sidharth Srinivasan. co-founders of Trashbots

By LAURA LOREK
Publisher of Silicon Hills News

In remote and impoverished areas of the world, teaching children science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM skills can involve a lot of expensive resources.

It requires computers, labs, buildings, high-speed Internet, power supplies, and pricey robotics kits with trained instructors.

That’s a problem Rohit and Sidharth Srinivasan saw first-hand during four trips to three Indian orphanages from 2013 to 2016 to teach kids STEM skills. They went on the trips with the Austin-based Miracle Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports orphans worldwide.

And Paul Austin, ex-chief architect of National Instruments, witnessed the same thing during visits to orphanages in Africa and India from 2011 to 2016.
From teaching in India, Rohit Srinivasan and his brother learned that the kids there were very smart, but they completely lacked in creativity and problem-solving skills.

Also, the current STEM programs weren’t easy to replicate.

“We needed a way to go about scaling STEM programs for kids,” Rohit Srinivasan said.

Teaching STEM skills to kids is a problem even in the U.S. at schools with very tight budgets, he said.

Teachers need to find ways to teach robotics easily and affordably in the U.S. and worldwide, said Austin. During his 28-year career at National Instruments, Austin helped create the Lego Mindstorms NXT and EV3, programmable robotics kits used in classrooms today.

In Austin, the Srinivasan brothers joined forces with Paul Austin to found Trashhbots in spring of 2016 to create robotics kits and a curriculum that costs around $80 per kit and can be controlled through Bluetooth technology with a smartphone or tablet. They partnered with the Miracle Foundation, Science in a Suitcase and a board design shop called TenX to bring the project to life.

Trashbots requires minimal infrastructure, Rohit Srinivasan said.

There’s no need for web, cellular data, PCs or AC power supply, he said. Trashbots’ kits run on rechargeable batteries.

Trashbots did an initial test of its kits in India but officially did a much bigger launch at South by Southwest EDU in Austin in March of 2017. At that event, Trashbots won the student pitch competition and had a booth at the Expo where they received feedback from a lot of teachers.

In April, Trashbots was selected to joinTarmac Texas, a nine-month-long startup accelerator backed by 3M and CALSO and based at Galvanize. They have office space at Galvanize and they regularly meet with mentors and attend sessions to learn about building out their business.

Trashbots is far less expensive than pre-existing STEM and robotics kits and is easier to use than do it yourself kits, Rohit Srinivasan said.

“The do it yourself kits are lower cost but require a huge amount of work to go in and teach how to use the technologies,” Sidharth Srinivasan said.

Trashbots’ kit components include the Trashbot brain, software, components, curriculum, and trash or items sourced from the local environment such as water bottles, rubber bands, sticks, tape, PVC pipes and more, said Sidharth Srinivasan.

Most current day kits, a student is confined to using the pieces within the kit, Sidharth Srinivasan said.

“It’s using what you have to make something new,” Sidharth Srinivasan said. “True engineering is not going to Amazon and buying what products you need to make something. It’s using products around you to make the best solution possible. That is the core of problem-solving.”

Paul Austin and Sidharth Srinivasan wrote the program that runs the motor or brain of the Trashbots system and Rohit Srinivasan developed the hardware. The curriculum is geared for K-12 students with simple programs for the younger students and more complex tasks and programming for the older students.

In the school system, there hasn’t been a vertical understanding of how to teach technology like there has been for music, Austin said.

And even the programs that exist are lacking in creativity skills, Rohit Srinivasan said. Westlake High School in Austin, where Rohit is a Senior and Sidharth is a Sophomore, offers numerous computer programming classes since Freshman year.

“So many kids are memorizing basic facts and they are not learning the problem solving and creativity techniques which are required for true engineering or to be good at programming,” Sidharth Srinivasan said.

Other key advantages for Trashbots is the kits are highly scalable, Rohit Srinivasan said.

“From kindergarten to 12th grade, students can do such a variety of things with one kit, which is not possible with a lot of other technical material out there,” Rohit said.

“At the same time, it allows them to hone in on their creativity and problem-solving skills because of the way our curriculum is focused.”
Trashbots’ target market is upper elementary through middle school, moving into high school – that’s where the most impact can be made moving forward, Rohit Srinivasan said.

“We want to do for robotics what the calculator did for math,” said Paul Austin.

“We’re teaching this with an iterative engineering process: think, build, test and repeat the same sequence till you get to your goal,” Rohit Srinivasan said. “What’s so powerful about this is you can teach kids this is not just for engineering but relevant if you’re an artist or a CEO of a massive Fortune 500 company. Everyone uses these processes. So, you are so much more successful if you think about something then you go build it and then you test it and then you think about how it can be improved. That simple three-step process is so successful and that is at the core of the teaching principle behind Trashbots.”

This process helps kids develop other skills too like team building, risk-taking and develop their self-esteem, Sidharth Srinivasan said.

This year, Trashbots has conducted a lot of camps to roll out its technology to students, Rohit Srinivasan said. It held a camp in Reynosa, Mexico and other camps at multiple Elementary and Middle schools in Austin.

In August, Trashbots traveled to Peru at the invitation of the Ministry of Education that oversees 13,000 schools to Cañete, Peru, a rural community 100 miles south of Lima. They taught more than 100 students there with the Trashbots kits.

Trashbots also participated in iPadPalooza and ISTE, a technology education conference in San Antonio with 5,000 teachers. The Micro:bit Educational Foundation invited Trashbots to be one of the launch partners there. They got non-binding orders from 50 school districts from U.S., Canada, and Australia for 500 kits already, Sidharth Srinivasan said.

“Now we’re working with a manufacturer and design team in India,” Rohit Srinivasan said.

Trashbots is moving into production with design and manufacturing partners in India to manufacture the first kits. Trashbots plans its initial delivery later this year, said Austin. The nonprofit organization is also in the process of exploring a transition to become a Public Benefit Corporation.

“We have all these people clamoring for our products and they want stuff and we just have to be able to go scale our delivery capabilities,” Rohit Srinivasan said.

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