“Our goal is to put enthusiasm back into learning and upgrading STEM skills.”
Inspired by the sacred Bodhi Tree beneath which Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment, the remarkable 'BigBodhi Academy of Robotics' got its name. Successfully run by two brothers, Santhakumar Chandrasekaran, and his twin Sathishkumar Chandrasekaran, this Indian STEM-based academy - since its inception in 2009 in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu - has been opening doors of opportunities for students in science, technology, and innovation like no other.
For those unaware, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.
I had the opportunity to converse with Mr. Santhakumar recently, and by the end of the inspiring hour-long interview, I was almost entirely motivated to coax my way into this brilliant academy for young students!
The Beginning Of It All:
Within a couple of years of working with a Multinational Company after completing engineering and M.B.A., Santhakumar - whose business plan in the final year of his master’s program was about experimental schools - realized that all the theoretical knowledge he had gained as a student didn’t materialize into anything significant to help him as a working professional. “I quit my job and researched extensively on schools. I travelled as an explorer across India and internationally to visit special schools like The Riverside School, Ahmedabad, and The Green School, Bali, to understand different curriculums, sustainable design ideas, and leadership, management, and communication methods. Drawing inspiration from these schools, I aimed to design my academy, knowing well the challenges of implementing the unique ideas I had in mind since it would be a breed apart in the cluster of schools with a conventional setup in Tamil Nadu,” Santhakumar explained.
“At that time, a friend introduced me to someone at ‘Carnegie Mellon University’ who was closely working with Lego developing software for the Lego robotics kit. After ordering the kit from the U.S.A., one of my classmates from M.B.A., Kali Prakash, and I conducted R&D on it and got well-versed in it. We understood that one could teach STEM through Robotics as it integrates all the aspects into it. We then ordered a few more kits and organized a one-month summer camp that at first only had three students, which then became twelve by the end,” he added. Santhakumar Chandrasekaran’s passion for designing an alternative school in Tamil Nadu, India, clubbed with his positive encounter with robotics, led to the birth of the ‘BigBodhi Academy.’
The Hurdle Of Lack Of Exposure And Awareness:
When asked about the challenges he faced in his journey to establish this one-of-a-kind academy in Tamil Nadu, he answered that a lack of awareness among people was the biggest hurdle. He emphasized that the issue was not that one didn’t understand the subject but that one did not have the needed exposure to understand it. He stated, “In my engineering course, I had a subject called 'robotics,' but there was no teacher to teach it, so I was forced to choose another elective. The Indian market didn’t have many trained professionals to teach robotics." He commented that the lack of awareness extended even to parents who'd ask if their children would become robotics engineers if they attended the academy.
What followed was a fascinating explanation of how this academy trains children on different topics. The academy practices a lab-oriented format with no theory - so much so that it does not allow pen and paper inside. One works out the formula mentally and only needs to know which concepts of physics/math are required to solve the problem - - it is the “application thought process” that the students cultivate here.
A Rocky Road Ahead:
Speaking of challenges after establishing his institution, Santhakumar expressed that a formidable obstacle for ‘BigBodhi Academy’ was getting entry into schools to discuss association with them. Having realized very early in their journey that the best way forward was associating with schools, I was told of a time in their pursuit to throw light on this field when going past security at schools was a struggle. However, after one school welcomed them and the international opportunities this field offered were understood by institutions, the BigBodhi team invited a different kind of problem for themselves where accommodating the long list of schools into their schedule was a challenge. There were giggles at this because we agreed that this, in a way, was a nice problem to have.
“We have set up a unique space where students learn Robotics and STEM skills through a hands-on and exploratory approach.”
Across The Ocean Opportunities:
Presented with several chances to compete at National and International arenas, the students not only excel at robotics but also pick up valuable life skills from the championships. It makes kids enthusiastic about science and technology, teaches them team spirit and team management, and encourages them to solve complex problems creatively and develop new and unique projects. The core aim of these high-level competitions is to promote multidisciplinary learning in science and technology.
One such popular international event is the ‘First Lego League’ (FLL), held in the U.S.A. It's a unique STEM-based robotics competition for 9 to 16-year-old students. Teams from BigBodhi were the 2018 and 2019 consecutive winners at the national level in India that travelled to the U.S.A. for the finals.
“MakeX is another competition we travelled to China twice for. The theme at MakeX is ‘alliance robot.’ Here, you are informed of your alliance only after you reach the arena - it can be Mexico one year and Russia the next. We have to then study the strengths and weaknesses of our alliance team on the spot and design a strategy for the competition. These competitions teach you so much more than just technical learning. From China, we learned dedication; we learned from Koreans how to be adept at tackling the language barrier; we learned organizational skills from the Japanese, whose work area would be spectacularly well-kept. Also, the friendships students make at these international arenas - which they carry forward even after the championships - benefit them significantly in more ways than one,” The founder of BigBodhi Academy affirmed.
If that wasn’t already impressive enough, several universities recognize and value participation in First Lego League (FLL) as an indicator of a student's interest and aptitude in STEM fields and offer them scholarships.
Santhakumar continued, “Universities as prestigious as Carnegie Mellon and MIT are also present at the venue and offer scholarships to the winning team then and there! Writing an entrance exam to get into MIT is incredibly tough, but participating in/winning this championship will get you offers from various prestigious universities, putting the onus on the students to choose from these impressive options. Companies like Apple and Google also observe these young talents in the championship arena and immediately hand offers to those selected.”
The ‘Never Give Up’ Attitude:
The field of robotics, the talented entrepreneur said, is always varied. “Each year, there is something new to learn. Also, because I’ve no affiliation with any school/university, I have the freedom to re-design my curriculum and style of teaching at will. Every new competition requires new problem-solving strategies and tactics. Considering we work for about six months on a new project, it is a unique experience each time. This keeps me motivated to keep going despite the difficulties,” he further expressed. Testament to this is the fact that the team has kept at it since its inception in 2009 despite the academy picking up pace only from 2016.
Educationalist, Not A Businessman:
The BigBodhi founder shared with me that this business was entirely self-funded. Even when approached by VC firms, Santhakumar and his twin brother Sathishkumar continued to self-fund because these offers often came with strings attached, I was told. He informed, “By self-funding, one negates all the restrictions and can make decisions based on one’s vision for the business. Also, with VC firms or franchises involved, the focus gets shifted from education to balance sheets, bringing in a lot of pressure to achieve “targets” - - I never wanted that to happen.”
Adding to it, he said that his family and friends always had his back and constantly enabled him to propel forward. From his brother Sathishkumar Chandrasekaran joining him in the venture to his parents and sister helping him source the robotic kits, and his friends aiding him financially, the lofty inspirer always had support.
BigBodhi Academy, now associated with several schools in Coimbatore, has successfully branched out into other cities in India and the U.S.A. While their in-house staff handles all the schools in Coimbatore, they have a ‘train the trainers’ program for schools outside the city that trains the school staff, who then teach its students the curriculum provided by the academy. He also mentioned that all the sessions during the pandemic were conducted one-on-one online in a simulated environment identical to building robots in a physical setting.
Mr. Chandrasekaran pointed out that while a degree can be an essential indicator of a trainer's expertise and knowledge, it is not always necessary for effective training. Therefore, he hires trainers solely based on their passion and willingness to learn and improve. He noted that his staff travels with him with utmost loyalty in this challenging journey, which he believes is the biggest strength of this academy.
“The future holds challenges where innovation, originality, and the ability to work in a team will serve as key competitive parameters.”
Education, Policies, Technology, And More:
The entrepreneur claimed that while the Indian Government, in recent years, has implemented several policies to support and encourage the growth of startups in the country, accessing these benefits after beating all the unknowns is still very hard. He, however, stated that India has indeed recognized the importance of startups as a key driver of economic growth and innovation and therefore is contributing to the emergence of a vibrant and dynamic startup ecosystem in the country - - an advantage he said he didn’t have many years ago when he began his entrepreneurial journey.
When asked if he thought there are students - in this generation of social media and influencers - still interested in mainstream fields like STEM, he responded with a definite “yes!” He further said that when they create high-quality, engaging content on social media that resonates with students and parents, a lot of the engagement translates into new enrollments.
He mentioned that while India has made progress in supporting its students, there is still much work to ensure all students have access to high-quality support. “The main reason we send our students overseas to compete is because of the offers they get from prestigious international universities. Getting any information for projects from Indian organizations like ISRO or DRDO is almost impossible. But at NASA, we could easily interact with and learn from scientists and astronauts. We were also given access to a designated 'FLL' area that housed the ‘Perseverance Rover’ going to Mars; it was in this room the astronauts trained the students firsthand. Ironically, getting expert opinions from international institutions is easier for us than getting a mere response from organizations in India,” the founder stated.
He further communicated that the academy needs significant funds to ship the robots alone, besides the students’ travel. "International academies/universities easily get sponsorships from various companies there. Whereas in India, it is a serious struggle. It usually ends with parents sponsoring their children. Therefore, in these aspects, India still has a long way to go,” Santhakumar conveyed.
Talking about the future of technology, he pointed out that technology is already driving the world and will continue to do so. He highlighted that we have seen rapid technological advancements over the past few decades - from the internet and mobile devices to artificial intelligence and robotics. These technologies have transformed how we live, work, and communicate with each other and can potentially revolutionize other areas of our lives in the future, too.
Last But Not The Least:
Santhakumar Chandrasekaran, who, along with a group of friends, goes trekking in the Himalayan Ranges annually for some peace and quiet, ended this interview on an inspirational note. He encouraged young entrepreneurs to believe in their ideas, take risks, and know that the funding will come to them as they pursue their vision with passion and dedication.
~ Written By Deepika Kamalesh for Art.Knowledge