Armenia’s School Pupil Engineers Seek to Reinvent the Robot; Government Plan to Establish Engineering Groups in Every School by 2019


Rafael and Sahak Sahakyan with their robot.

Rafael and Sahak Sahakyan with their robot.

GUMRI, Armenia (Guardian) — The little robot makes odd beeps as it spins around the room, detecting fires with its thermal sensors and extinguishing flames with a strong blast of air.

Its mission accomplished, the beeps die down and the machine comes to an abrupt halt.

Rather than being the brainchild of experienced engineers in a hi-tech lab, the firefighter robot was designed by Armenian schoolboys Rafael and Sahak Sahakyan — brothers aged 18 and 14.

It is one of several inventions to come out of Armenia’s youth robotics program, which aims to establish engineering groups in every school by 2019. Already there are 121 after-school clubs, catering for pupils between 12 and 18.

The government hopes the scheme will improve the quality of engineering education and encourage inventors of the future.

At the brothers’ school in Gumri, one of the poorest cities in Armenia, more than 20 pupils gather after lessons every week to design and create robots.

“When I was little, every day my friends would go out after school to play football while I would go home and take apart electrical gadgets to find out how they worked,” says Rafael Sahakyan.

His dedication bore fruit. The brothers’ invention will be entered into Armenia’s annual robotics contest, in which schoolchildren from across the country compete against each other.

Instructor Rafael Hekimyan said the project helps children develop independent thinking and will breed a new generation of engineers.

“For a country like Armenia which does not have great natural resources, information technology is a good opportunity to develop the economy,” he said.

The Union of Information Technology Enterprises, which runs the scheme, said the initiative had grown from a few experimental groups into a national program.

“Many parents asked us to expand the program, as they could see the benefits for children,” said Karen Vardanyan, the union’s executive director.

To develop the software the clubs use the Scratch and Turtle programming languages, with open source code created by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Scratch is a free programming language and online community where you can create your own interactive stories, games, and animations,” said Vardanyan.

Emil Tarasyan, the deputy economy minister, said the clubs solved several problems at once.

“The government has proclaimed IT to be a priority sector for Armenia but to fulfill this potential we need properly trained professionals,” he said. “That is why we are focusing on school-age children. We think the 12 to 18 age group is the best to target.”

Rafael and Sahak Sahakyan, who are from a family of engineers, built their robot together. Rafael was responsible for programming the software while his younger brother made the hardware.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Sahak. “We had to give a life to an inanimate piece of iron. Every day we tried new solutions to improve the robot. We had many failures but we hope to perfect in the next few months to enter the competition.”