Initiated in 2009 by UKM’s Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment, in partnership with the Faculty of Technology and Information Science, this programme applies a unique cascading model whereby faculty members train a cohort of UKM undergraduates to be mentors for secondary school students to develop innovative projects based on microcontroller concepts. The programme, dubbed as “Creative Youths through Innovative Learning” or better known as the CRYSTaL programme, has to this date benefitted 134 secondary school students from five secondary schools in the state of Johor and Selangor, Malaysia.
A brainchild of the Dean for the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment (FEBE), Prof Ir Dr Marzuki Mustafa, and helmed by Prof. Madya Dr. Hafizah Husain, Head of the Electirical, Electronics and Systems Engineering Department, the programme enables secondary school students to create automatic applications based on knowledge they gained throughout their mentoring sessions.
Microcontroller chips were chosen to be used in the project because they it can be easily programmed using a computer. By connecting the chip to a particular device, it can be programmed to perform various tasks automatically whether for the purpose of games (fun-and-play) or in the actual application of appliances in homes, schools or for the industries.
The project develops an innovative culture among the younger generation through the usage of micro controller chip technology and applying the technology they have learnt to solve daily problems in their homes and communities. Through the programme, students were also able to develop a deeper interest in science and technology, while ensuring a more productive use of their free-time.
Collaborating with the Industry
With standard micro controller chips costing about RM40 a piece, the project could not have been carried out without the financial support of UEM Group who has contributed RM400,000 for the 2-year programme. The generous funding has helped the programme to run its workshops, design training modules and manuals as well as purchase the components and parts needed. The programme was also actively supported by the University’s Office of Industry and Community Partnerships enabling the programme coordinators to form those partnerships and to sustain them.
As in any other partnership, trust was one of the key ingredients in making this work. Along with the financial support, UEM Group gave the programme implementers the freedom to carry out the activities without hindrance, which contributed greatly towards the success of the programme.
Aside from introducing the basics of embedded systems and programming to secondary school students, the programme has also succeeded in cultivating a unique sense of creativity that is needed for the students to design their own systems. The mentoring aspect of the programme ensures that the students receive hands-on learning directly from their mentors through group discussions and problem solving sessions with support throughout the year via e-mails, Facebook and blogs. This model not only enables the students to learn in detail about microcontroller and its finer aspects, but also prepares them to create their own projects which they then present at the end of the programme.
The UKM students themselves have plenty of positive takeaways from the programme. Apart from learning to convey the practical knowledge they have to the community, they have also gained better self-confidence, and leadership skills through managing the programme and are able to work better as a team. The mentors and mentees, who all come from different ethnic backgrounds, have also gained valuable communication skills that they can take to the working world.
The mentors, who come from various academic programmes within the Faculty of Engineering such as such as electrical & electronics, microelectronics, communications and computer, manufacturing and computer science, also gain a more practical experience in troubleshooting circuitry and functional mechanical systems which they can apply in their courses. They are also able to integrate their knowledge in various fields such as power systems, communications, biomedicine and others through this programme.
The project is also seen as one that is sustainable, as it is designed to be an extension of several subjects offered by the Faculty. These subjects are Microprocessor, Microcomputer and System Design. For the secondary schools, the programme is absorbed as part of the Rekacipta (Design and Build) subject. Many schools are keen to take on the programme as well, after seeing the positive results produced in the programme. Knowledge gained from this project also enables the students to explore the world of entrepreneurship giving a chance for them to improve the lives of their community.
Improving the Community
The students within the programme are always encouraged to create micro-chip enabled devices that could improve the well-being of their communities. In one instance, the students rallied together to create several devices for a duck farm belonging to the father of one of the mentees. Through micro-enabled devices, the students were able to regulate the eating schedule for the ducks, control the lighting to enable an extra four hours of light after sundown, deliver water supply when necessary from a nearby water drum and to keep away rodents by repelling them with anti-rodent devices when sensors are triggered.
These main four innovative devices greatly helped the farm to increase its production while cutting down on precious resources, and ultimately reduced operational costs for the farm. The farm, which belongs to the father of 17 year old Muhamad Amirul bin Zamberi had previously struggled with the overfeeding of ducks, and the lack of water. The small farm lacked the man power to monitor the ducks whenever the farmer would leave the farm to sell vegetables at the market. Although the automatic feeder functions well, there are still some improvements that could be made and the UKM team is convinced that Amirul and his group would be able to carry on from there.
Other notable projects by the same batch of students were the automatic brake system which transmits a brake signal to another remotely controlled car, the auto-shield system which draws a curtain when sensors indicate a change in the levels of sunlight, and the automatic blackboard cleaner or “i-board” which assists teachers to clean the traditional chalk board.
As the programme progressed, the school students were seen to be even more committed towards their projects, while improving their scientific knowledge and communication skills. Several students were even rejecting offers to prestigious boarding schools so that they could stay on at their rural schools to complete projects that they had started.
In another case, a student who had left for a boarding school insisted that he be released for one weekend in order to join in the workshop that was being held at UKM. Although he was rejected by the principal the first time, one of the teachers at his present school could see his determination and enthusiasm. An appeal was made on his behalf, and he was finally allowed to join in the workshop.
Commitment towards the programme is also evident amongst the University students involved as mentors in this initiative. Undergraduates who have left to pursue their postgraduate studies or for employment have since returned to mentor existing students within the programme. Feedback from the students from the first batch of the programme has been extremely encouraging, and the mentors and the mentee are still communicating with one another. This demonstrates the strong and sustainable relationship which has developed between the mentors and mentees during this programme.
The programme is currently at the final stage of the second cycle, and now has a new set of mentors. The students recently presented their invention ideas through video presentations with the theme “Green Technology.” Principals from both schools have expressed their hope that the programme be extended for at least another year, seeing how the students have gained from and enjoyed it immensely. The team from UKM is ecstatic that their objectives have been met, and hopes to implement the programme to more secondary schools in the near future.