Mohamed Harding is a 17-year-old student from Freetown, Sierra Leone, whose passion for electronics lends a whole new meaning to the notion of “do-it-yourself.” Despite growing up in one of the poorest countries in the world, where a decade-long civil war devastated both educational and living standards, Mohamed recently taught himself how to make a sophisticated, programmable, autonomous robot from nothing but junk.
Armed with just a soldering gun, some broken toy parts and knowledge gained from MIT OpenCourseWare, he built a “grab and spy” robot that could easily have competed in the famous 6.270 Autonomous Robot Design Competition course that inspired him. “I used a chip which I extracted it from a spoiled toy, and the components of dinosaur legs which have a gear system to make robot arms,” Mohamed says. “The trunk has a USB webcam and LED lights to spy. I have tested it and shown it to my friends and they have all assured me that they are going to use OCW to make similar things.”
Mohamed attends the prestigious Prince of Wales secondary school, with a concentration in the sciences. He is almost amusingly serious about his studies — when asked about his single favorite subject in school, he offers four in return: engineering, mathematics, physics and chemistry. He won’t choose favorites, he says, because they are all equally important to studying engineering at university.
It was an uncle at nearby Fourah Bay College in Freetown who first told Mohamed about OCW. Since then, he’s essentially created his own electronic design curriculum by following courses like 6.01SC Introduction to Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and 2.007 Design and Manufacturing I from home. For Mohamed, OCW complements his existing studies not simply by adding depth to what he’s learned, but also by showing him real world applications for his knowledge. “It helps me in school because things that are not taught in my school can be researched there. When I started using OCW, I said ‘Wow!’ because I realized that all these things that they teach us in school can actually be done.”
Although Mohamed is already a highly motivated and thoughtful student, he credits OCW with keeping him focused on schoolwork, and spurring him to imagine new engineering projects. “OCW has helped me a lot educationally. It has kept me busy with making, and averted me from watching all the things on the Internet that other people waste time on. Making is a good thing. It exposes you to the world and broadens your mind.”
Mohamed also gives credit to his mentor, MIT Media Lab graduate student David Sengeh, a Sierra Leone native who recently returned to Freetown to create an annual competition and mentorship program called Innovate Salone. Modeled after MIT’s own innovation competitions, the program has stimulated hundreds of students to design and develop new devices and services, and begin re-inventing their country’s future.
It’s clear that Mohamed’s exposure to both OCW and Sengeh have given him a new perspective. He feels more confident about pursuing his university studies and his eventual dream of becoming an aircraft engineer. “I want to thank OCW for enabling me to learn to the stage where I am now. OCW is important because it helps a person prepare themselves well for the work ahead. It exposes you to university methods and lectures, and gets you ready for university.”
More importantly, the example set by OCW and Sengeh has inspired Mohamed to think broadly about how his own knowledge can help others. “I believe that in Sierra Leone we have talent but not opportunities where boys can be exposed to making things and realize their own talent. I would like to bring more technology thinking for daily uses here, and use my own makings to make Sierra Leone a better place and a better country.”