When Jay Jayaseelan and his wife immigrated to the United States from Singapore and Japan, they quickly saw a significant difference between science and math curricula in Asia and in the Americas.
Jayaseelan began to play around with the idea of turning the U.S. STEM — or science, technology, engineering and mathematics — programs on their heads, bringing practices he saw first-hand in Asian countries to the children of Utah.
He approached an old friend, Glenn Jakins, an entrepreneur from South Africa, with his idea to bring the more hands-on and expansive STEM curricula he was familiar with to Utah. Jakins jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
“If you think about the future, automation is everything,” Jakins said. “Future jobs are going to have so many of them involving automation. There was no one in our valley teaching youth about automating and programming robots. If we don’t rise to the occasion, we’re going to fall behind.”
Jayaseelan used his over 11 years in the robotics industry, developing robotics programs across the world, to develop Learning Through Robotics, a Lindon-based company that offers on STEM programs and weekly classes that teach elementary and middle school students how to build robots and configure their behaviors for competitions and summer camps.
They started by teaching two children in Jayaseelan’s garage. It was a slow start, Jakins said, but the concept began to pick up steam. In the almost six years that Learning Through Robotics has been available to Utah County students, Jakins and Jayaseelan have worked with over 24,000 kids.
Partnering with companies in Japan, Jayaseelan works with schools to provide hands-on experience to students interested in engineering subjects, math and science.
The company brings the hands-on application of Asian curricula to the U.S. while working alongside Utah’s common core strategies, integrating concepts students are already learning in the classroom with robotics.
A year into its creation, Learning Through Robotics also began working with local colleges — such as Brigham Young University and the University of Utah — to reach more students.
“Our partner classes provide thousands of Utah students with an authentic, hands-on STEM experience that aligns the core learning objectives with their formal education,” said Holly Newell, program manager of Youth Education at the University of Utah. “We are so proud and grateful to play a role in leading students to higher education, preparing them for a future in STEM, and instilling a sense of lifelong learning.”
In addition to having the opportunity to teach more school-age children, Learning Through Robotics’ partnership with universities extends to college students looking to gain hands-on experiences.
During the school year, Learning Through Robotics teachers visit schools to share STEM and robotics lessons with students in their day-to-day classroom environments. In 2019, the company brought the Mars Rover robot to visit students and share a presentation of the importance of robotics at a Utah County charter school.
“Many of these college students are going to become elementary, primary or secondary school teachers,” Jayaseelan said. “For many of them, they have no experience, so they would like to get into a school environment and see what it’s like.”
Last summer, Learning Through Robotics employed over 25 full-time senior education and engineering students wanting to get classroom experience to teach some of the classes offered through the company.
Over the years, Learning Through Robotics has employed the help of hundreds of Utah college students.
Just when the company was beginning to see exponential growth, the coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S. Now, the company is shifting gears to ensure students on summer break are still exercising their minds and remaining healthy.
With the help of technology, Jakins and Jayaseelan are using Zoom to host virtual classes where students can follow along from the comfort of their homes. Before classes begin, the company mails or asks parents to pick up the equipment the students will need to complete each task.
“Here in Utah, these kids no longer have access to a classroom, and we’re trying to teach something that’s hands-on,” Jayaseelan said.
Virtual meetings will limit the atmosphere of collaboration and the opportunity for students to learn to program as a team, he said. Learning Through Robotics is the first STEM-based learning company in Utah to teach robotics courses completely online, which puts the company in an experimental phase as Jakins and Jayaseelan learn what is best for teachers and students.
While the transfer from in-person to online has, so far, had a generally positive impact on the classes as students have adapted well to the situation, the switch will have a different effect on each individual student.
“Students who are not very interactive will enjoy it the most because they can participate in the class on their own, but for those who like to engage with others, they’re going to find it a little bit more challenging,” Jayaseelan said.
Learning Through Robotics does not currently offer classes outside of Utah, but Jakins and Jayaseelan are looking forward to a possible expansion in the future. Additionally, Jayaseelan said he would like to see partnerships between the company and city governments.
For now, Learning Through Robotics is looking to support students through the coronavirus pandemic and rebuild class sizes once Utah County begins to move into the new normal.