My Journey to Becoming a Maker Educator


by Roy Ombatti -

I have been a maker educator for over 5 years now, and all the while, I was also a maker learner. I am still learning and that will continue in this amazing experience.

My journey as a maker educator started with a vision and dream that I shared with a great friend and colleague, Juliet Wanyiri, herself a Fablearn Fellow. Juliet and I have known each other since we were about 6 years old in the Kenyan system equivalent of first grade. We went to the same schools and ended up studying engineering together at the University of Nairobi. Our friendship is almost 20 years old now! (Wow! That sounds so scary!) The story is an interesting one, but for now I will stick to my version of the events that lead to my becoming a maker educator.

As Juliet and I progressed through school, we found we were dissatisfied with the theoretical approach to learning in Kenya. We longed for more in terms of quality of education for ourselves and we eventually found ourselves at the Fablab in Nairobi which was ideally located at one of the engineering departments at the University of Nairobi. I still remember my excitement visiting the Fablab for the first time. With my passion for tools and making, I immediately felt right at home.

Juliet and I both share a passion for the community and we always wanted to give back. When our professor and then FabLab coordinator, Kamau Gachigi, introduced us to the PicoCricket kit from MIT’s Media Lab, Juliet and I agreed that we wanted to do something for the community with the skills we were learning. We didn’t have much to give in terms of material things, but what better thing to give than yourself? We decided to share our time, skills and knowledge with others.

Because they were easy to use and learn, the PicoCricket kits seemed like an easy way for us to make our dream a reality. Kamau told us of his plans to have an outreach program at the Fablab where the lab could cater to children interested in making. This immediately stuck with us and we ran with it. After numerous conversations we quickly assembled a team of fellow engineering students and brainstormed about the curriculum that we were going to teach. We focused our teaching around the PicoCricket kit and we had plans of expanding to the GoGo board as well as Scratch. We targeted the less privileged schools as we felt they were most in need (and also because of less bureaucracy).

I feel fortunate to have ended up in an engineering career, given the struggles of the education system in Kenya. But even in my good fortune, I feel our education system could be better. It is very theoretical and focuses a lot on cramming for the sake of passing exams as opposed to learning for the sake of learning. This did not sit well with us as a team and we were determined to do something about it in our own small way. We felt privileged to have had the resources we had that led to us ending up where we were and we wanted to give other children the same (or better) opportunities. And thus the Nairobi Fablab Robotics Outreach Program was born: teaching making to children in a cool and fun way as well as a platform for mentoring the less privileged kids by university students.

The journey itself wasn’t as smooth as it sounds and most of the time we were making it up as we went. We only had the weekends to spare as we were full-time students. So we had to make time to meet up during the weekdays to plan for the sessions on Saturdays. We had many other challenges such as limited resources for supplies and people, all volunteers. But somehow we made it work and ended up scaling up the program to the point that it was taken up and replicated by the biggest telecommunication company in Kenya where it runs to this day. The program grew and changed with time with the curriculum growing in depth and content. Again, I am not doing the story of our struggles and successes any justice. But then again, that is a story for another day. My point is, due to the shared vision of a few individuals and the passion to effect change, our program came to be and consequently I became I maker educator, all the while still a maker learner!




Heather Pang's picture

I suspect that your journey was much more difficult than you make it sound. You have a great sense of what maker education and learning need to be in your context, and I am so impressed by your program. I wish I been able to visit when I brought students to Kenya in 2012, maybe I will get the chance to come back someday!

Roy Ombatti's picture

The journey was definitely more difficult. But it was still very fun and we learnt a whole lot. It would have been awesome if you got to visit. But it's never too late.

Dai Ellis's picture

Roy - love what you're doing!

Looks like PicoCricket got discontinued -- do you know what happened?