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[LIMA] In a remote village of the Peruvian Andes, a robot has taken over the classroom.

Created by a science and technology teacher, Kipi the robot speaks the local language, Quechua, as well as Spanish. Kipi is making sure that students do not miss out on classes that were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this country of 33 million inhabitants, just 30 per cent of the population has a stable internet connection and rural areas lack electricity. This means students cannot access the virtual classes that the Ministry of Education broadcasts on radio and television.

Living conditions for remote and high-altitude communities in the Andes are precarious.
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

“Kipi was born because of the pandemic,” teacher Walter Velásquez tells SciDev.Net. Velásquez is calling from Colcabamba, a district in the region of Huancavelica, almost 3000 metres above sea level. The village is nestled in one of the most dangerous areas of the Peruvian Andes and is a corridor for drug trafficking and some remaining members of the rebel group Shining Path.
 
“In the third week of the quarantine, I was very concerned about my students,” says Velásquez. “I had given old radios to some of them but I know in their communities where they live there are not stores for buying batteries and there isn’t electricity either.

“I wanted my robot to be female as a tribute to a girl that walks almost three hours to school from her community.”

Walter Velásquez, science and technology teacher

“Also, some mothers in my district told me they were unable to help their kids with the ‘I learn at home’ classes [from the Ministry of Education] because they are illiterate and most of them do not speak Spanish. Some children also have autism or different abilities,” Velásquez says.

In Peru’s peasant communities, many mothers are illiterate and speak only Quechua. They are unable to help their children with their Spanish-language schooling.
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

So, he quickly devoted himself to building a robot with whatever materials he had available at his Centre for Creativity and Inquiry. He created the centre ten years ago to draw students at his school, Santiago Antunez de Magiolo, towards science and technology.

Kipi was made with upcycled materials and simulates a 10-year-old girl.
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

“I wanted my robot to be female as a tribute to a girl that walks almost three hours to school from her community.
 
“Also, to highlight the women of role, because there is still great discrimination here — fathers and brothers are the first to eat; if it is necessary to pull out kids from school, girls are the first option before the boys. So, I wished to highlight the important role of women,” Velásquez explains.


Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

Upcycling

Kipi the robot is made from upcycled materials. Her backpack is a solar panel and she has been programmed to explain how it transforms solar energy into electricity, while encouraging students to make their own innovations using local materials, such as sticks or stones.
 
“In this way, kids awaken their interest in science and technology,” Velásquez says.
 
Kipi’s electronic parts were built with radio plates, television pieces and small electronic cards. To sequence her lights and movements, Velásquez used an Arduino card — an open-source electronics platform — and loaded Kipi with smart apps to enable interaction with students.
 
Through a second-hand tablet, students can instruct Kipi to read poems, texts in both Quechua and Spanish, do gymnastics and dance. Kipi can laugh, or be sad if, for example, students do not wash their hands before beginning the class.
 
And because the students do not have printers, Velásquez has also made ‘Kipi books’ so they can practice reading..

As schools are closed because of the pandemic, classes with Kipi are held outdoors and socially distanced.
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

Gaining access

With schools closed, Kipi has given outdoor classes in many of the 17 peasant communities in Colcabamba, often at the foot of the rivers or surrounded by glaciers. Velásquez carries Kipi on the back of a mule, a horse or a llama — an Andean camelid used to transport goods.
 
“Because of the lockdown all roads are closed, but they allow us to pass. ‘Here comes Kipi and the teacher, open up all the roadblocks’, the guards shout,” Velásquez says.

Kipi and her teacher cross mountain ranges using any transport available to reach high-altitude communities.
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

For now, the school has to travel to the communities. But when classes reopen, Velásquez hopes to optimise the process with the students at the Centre for Creativity and Inquiry.
 
“It is very difficult to teach science and technology on a blackboard, that’s why you have to be resourceful, to prevent them from going to the ‘other side’,” he says, referring to the dangers that tempt young people in that Andean area.
 

Digital divide 

For Johan Baldeón, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru’s Faculty of Engineering, Velásquez’s efforts are inspiring and motivating for his students.
 
“It is a paradigm shift. He is doing things that awaken, that make students see their reality in a different way and learn that there are things beyond their immediate environment,” Baldeón says.

Taking the school to the students is the aim of teacher Walter Velásquez (left).
Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.

Baldeón, who researches development and the application of interactive tools in education, tells SciDev.Net that the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on Peru’s digital divide — the inequalities in the distribution of, and access to, information and communications technologies.
 
"It also has to do with digital skills, that is, adequately prepared teachers and parents capable of accompanying their children in educational tasks,” he says.


Credit: Courtesy of Walter Velásquez.