Beirut-based technology initiative propping future generations
BEIRUT - Investing in young minds and helping shape future generations to keep up with internet and technology evolution are at the core of “The Little Engineer.”
The award-winning initiative is a unique platform that aims to unleash young people’s full potential in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) through engaging, hands-on activities.
“As we are heading to the fourth industrial revolution, we need to prepare our students to be part of it. Otherwise they will not be able to integrate in the workforce of the future,” said Rana Chmaitelly, a Lebanese mechanical engineer and founder of The Little Engineer (TLE).
Since its inception in 2009, TLE has transformed from an after-school activity centre into a scientific institution aiming to orient, empower and encourage learners to enter the fields of engineering, robotics, renewable energy, mechatronics, the internet of things, coding, civil engineer, 3D modelling and engineering management.
After a career providing maintenance and repair services for digital photography machines, Chmaitelly, an instructor of robotics in the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture at the American University of Beirut, said the idea of TLE was spurred by her then 7-year-old son.
“I brought a robot home one day and to my surprise, my son, who was totally addicted to electronic games and social media, dropped everything and came to explore the robot with me,” Chmaitelly said. “Then I decided that youngsters today need a place where they can learn and engage in more practical activities.”
Students attending workshops and lessons at TLE attain basic engineering skills before moving into higher education. “That would help them discover their talents, whether they have a passion for STEM subjects and want to go into engineering fields or not,” Chmaitelly said.
She quoted one student who was among the winners of the Hult Prize competition saying: “Miss Rana do you remember me? I was a member of The Little Engineer and it was you who inspired me to get there.”
“One mother also sent me a message saying: ‘My son is today in a robotics academy in England and it was thanks to you’,” Chmaitelly said.
“In fact, TLE helped shape their life through introducing them to the world of electronics and technology. You create in them the passion for a certain subject and then they will themselves do their own research to learn more about it.
“Instead of spending hours playing games, they would employ their time in a more constructive and instructive manner,” she added.
Working with a team of engineers, Chmaitelly developed a series of hands-on edutainment courses that are fun but also encourage critical thinking. One of the most popular has students build and operate a robot.
‘It can be anything from a car to a plane, a washing machine or conveyor belt. We provide them with the tools and the knowledge and then they have to produce something,” she said.
Chmaitelly said that under existing curricula, theory is dominant while practical experience and applied initiation are lacking. “For instance, mechanical engineers have a big gap. We graduate with lots of theory but we are not exactly ready for the labour market,” she said.
Turning theory into practice, Chmaitelly devised a curriculum for STEM education along with activities and space and aviation workshops. Already 12 private schools and ten public schools in Lebanon have introduced the programme, giving their students 1 hour of robotics instruction per week.
“The programme covers all grades from the first year to high school. It covers a different topic in each grade so students are exposed to the various STEM fields and would have a learning objective before joining university,” Chmaitelly said.
She devised a special STEM programme for Syrian refugees under which Syrian teachers were trained and provided with the tools to transfer technological knowledge to their students.
“So far, 850 refugees have joined the programme, each getting 20 hours of tech learning to improve their refugee conditions, like how to make tents fireproof and how to filter rainwater to become potable,” Chmaitelly said.
Through customising her programme to different contexts with different needs, Chmaitelly expanded to countries in Africa and the Middle East.
She also worked with Airbus Foundation forming the Technology and Livelihood Education programme in Africa and the Middle East. The programme has been running since 2012 and aims to inspire youth across the two regions to focus on STEM studies, notably aviation and space engineering.
Chmaitelly’s innovative business has been recognised with several international awards, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Cartier Women Initiative.