'Classroom in a box' brings science education to rural kids

Nikko Torcita's 'Classroom on the Go' portable education setup

Imagine having to climb a mountain and wading through a raging river with only a rubber floater to save you from drowning just to get to a school, and still not get the best education you deserve.

This was the image that prompted electronics and software engineer Nikko Torcita to make his move.

What separates the kids from Casili Elementary School from getting a good education is not only their remote location, but also the lack of educational equipment available to them.

“These (kids) are really putting so much effort just to go to school and somehow, the effort that they put in is not being matched by what the government provides for them. I believed that there (had) to be work (put) into that,” he said in an interview with GMA News Online.

Torcita started devising ways to produce low-cost educational materials that can aid the learning of students in rural areas, such as Casili Elementary School in Rodriguez, Rizal.

Taking his cue from the Hole in the Wall project in India, he then thought of a “cheap way to hack in the system – to provide them with education that is at par with what kids in urban areas get”.

Kids who've never seen computers in their lives

Torcita during his first visit, brought a cheap computer set up composed of a Raspberry Pi computer, a pico projector, speakers, and a keyboard, among others. The set up was powered by a battery that can last up to eight hours when fully charged. It also includes a back up battery with the same capacity.

Upon Torcita's arrival, he encountered 12- and 13-year-olds who had never seen an actual computer in their lives.

“They know what a computer is because they've seen it in textbooks. But they haven't touched or seen one in action. So they were a bit mezmerized. That time I thought, I think I won't be able to conduct a class using this kasi medyo bago pa sila,” he said.

The Raspberry Pi is a cheap Linux computer preinstalled with some of the basic installations you will find in a Windows computer, like notepad and Word. It is also preinstalled with Scratch, a program designed to teach kids the concepts of basic programming.

However, the kids of Casili stuck to the basics of typing and clicking. They lined up and took turns typing their names using the keyboard. Seeing the letters appear in the projected document was a different experience.

“They had fun actually, because for them, pressing a letter in a keyboard, and (seeing) that letter (appear) on the screen is something magical.”

The entire kit is around PhP18,000 as of the present. But Torcita and his team aim to bring the cost down to around PhP10,000 - PhP11,000. The most expensive gadget in the set is the pico projector which costs PhP 9,000 - PhP 10,000. But Torcita is coming up with a prototype of a pico projector that costs around PhP 3,000 - PhP 4,000.

Designing a low-cost science laboratory

After a couple of consultations with the teachers, Torcita learned that some of the difficult topics to make kids understand are related to science, such as global warming, and the anatomy of flowers and insects.

In order to aid teachers in showing kids what insects look like upclose, Torcita and fellow engineer JD Yap designed this microscope made of acrylic glass, which when used with a camera phone, is capable of magnifying a specimen 70 times its normal size, enough to study the parts of an insect.

Yap helped Torcita design the microscope. They improved on a concept presented in a DIY article from Instructables and produced a device that more closely resembles a microscope but is made mostly of acrylic glass.

The specimen is first inserted under the top platform. A camera phone is then placed on top of the platform in order to magnify the subject.

"It's common nowadays to find people with cameras with phones na. Yung mga teachers sa Casili may mga cameras na yung phones nila," he said. These can be used by the teachers with the aid of the microscope.

In December last year, Torcita together with some friends visited the school once again and introduced their invention, and to celebrate Christmas as well.

Two of the microscopes were then left in Casili Elementary School for the use of the teachers.

Torcita said that he and Yap are working on the next prototype, which can magnify a specimen up to 600 times, enough to view a red blood cell, while still keeping the cost at bay.

Plans for the future

As of the present, Torcita partnered with two other Miguel Bermundo and Cathy Chua are finding ways to fund this project in order to make it more sustainable and provide more of these low-cost equipment to schools in rural areas.

"We're planning to sell this to upper markets, and have an option that you buy one for the price of two and the other one goes to a rural school."

The group recently submitted an application to the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia, a competition in Singapore where seed funding of up to $30,000 will be received by the grand prize winner.

— TJD/VC, GMA News