SINGAPORE: Access to education, especially at a young age, can have a huge impact on one’s life but with livelihoods thwarted and schools having to be closed intermittently, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted this for many around the world.
In Singapore, not everyone gets a conducive environment to study outside of a school setting, especially those from low-income, vulnerable families, said Ang Yu Qian and Kloe Ng. They are founders of an education start-up who believe they can help.
Their idea: A briefcase-sized cardboard box that can be unpacked easily to form a light but sturdy table and stool.
Designed with children aged four to seven in mind, each cardboard table stands at about 56cm tall and has a surface measuring 65cm by 46cm. The stool, at about 31 cm tall, is also made of cardboard.
This hopes to provide those from less-privileged backgrounds with a versatile and age-appropriate set-up, as they tend to do their studying on the floor, dining tables or beds due to resource and space constraints, said Mr Ang.
When not in use, the table legs and stool can be easily unassembled and packed into the box, making it easy to be stored. There is also sufficient space to pack in stationery and books.
“What we have in mind is when you open the box, you will have everything you need,” the 34-year-old told CNA.
Since the start of the year, the two Singaporeans, who are based in the US, have partnered several welfare organisations such as the Singapore Children’s Society, Shine Children and Youth Services, as well as Boon Lay Youth Network, to identify those in need. More than 50 sets have been given out for free.
Working with these organisations have helped them to understand real demands on the ground.
For instance, some of the sets had to be laminated to better serve children with special needs. “We were also told that our stools don’t have a backrest so the children were rocking the stools and find it difficult to sit still,” said Mr Ang. “That was something we did not think about.”
A handle to the box was also subsequently added, alongside a whiteboard to the table top. Different stationery and learning materials were included based on the needs of the beneficiaries.
“One of the organisations told us that with COVID-19, maybe it’s better to have a table top that is easy to wipe down and can hold up to repeated cleaning. The kids also wanted a writing surface so we added a whiteboard,” he said.
Boon Lay Youth Network, a youth volunteer group under the People’s Association Youth Movement, has distributed 15 of these cardboard sets to participants of its kidsREAD programme since February.
The hope is that this will encourage the children aged four to six and living in nearby rental blocks, to keep reading outside of the bi-monthly reading sessions, said one of the volunteers Chia Zhao Wei.
“If you want a child to focus on reading or studying, it is good to give them their own space which can be as basic as a table. But for many of our low-income families living in rental flats, they don’t have much space so there isn’t much furniture or what they have may not be kids-friendly.
“So we feel something that is compactable is useful in this situation. By giving the children their own tables, we also hope it will help to inculcate a sense of ownership,” he added.
So far, the cardboard sets have been well-received by the young beneficiaries.
“The kids got very excited when they saw the tables. The measurements are of the right height and size for them,” said Mr Chia. “Based on our follow-up visits, they are still enjoying and using it, especially the whiteboards.”
Apart from welfare and self-help groups, a few dozens of the cardboard sets were also distributed to returning Singaporean families who had to serve their quarantine orders or stay-home notices at hotels.
Altogether, about 80 sets have been given out.
THINKING OUT OF THE BOX
But a cardboard set wasn’t what Mr Ang and Ms Ng had in mind initially.
Instead, they had wanted to distribute a product they were working on for the past three years as part of their start-up, Out of the Box.
Dubbed “a mobile classroom in a box”, it is a wooden and plastic box fitted with wheels and packed with an easy-to-assemble study table and chair, alongside other learning materials.
The plan was to give this to as many as 100 low-income households in Singapore to help them with home-based learning needs amid the pandemic. They had pitched this idea to an innovation challenge organised by the National University of Singapore (NUS) and was awarded a S$50,000 grant after being named one of the winning teams in November last year.
“But we met with some challenges,” recalled Mr Ang. “First, a high manufacturing cost which means we will be reaching out to a lot less children. Second, the duration to manufacture is also longer.”
So the duo had to improvise.
They quickly settled on cardboard as an alternative and found home-grown firm Tri-Wall Asia, which was able to supply the cardboard and manufacture quickly.
While tweaks had to be made, the two Singaporeans said they are heartened by the feedback so far.
“We started working on this and Out of the Box because we wanted to address issues with accessibility and affordability to pre-school education, especially in developing countries,” said Ms Ng. “We think this new cardboard version will be useful when we go into these places.”
The idea of “a mobile classroom in a box” first took shape in 2013 when the pair started their first venture – an enrichment business focusing on STEM, otherwise known as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, classes.
Then, the final-year students at the NUS School of Design and Environment held their classes at different community centres. Logistics soon became a headache with the amount of teaching materials needed.
“Let’s say for a science class on chromatography, you’ll need containers, food colouring, droppers, filter papers, scissors and other things to add to the experience like lab coats, safety goggles and magnifying glass. With 20 kids in the class, it really adds up so we’d be lugging a luggage around,” recalled Ms Ng.
“That was when Yu Qian... starting having an idea of a mobile classroom – a box where you can bring it everywhere, open it and be ready for class,” she added.
“He had some sketches and we thought it was a great idea. But we didn’t act on it.”
It was only five years later when they moved to the United States to further their studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that this idea resurfaced. Mr Ang is currently pursuing a PhD in Architecture (Building Technology) while Ms Ng is studying a Master’s in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.
“Kloe saw a call for ideas by the World Bank in 2018 for their Youth Summit focusing on education. She thought my old sketches could be relevant and so we submitted it,” said Mr Ang.
The “mobile classroom in a box” went on to bag the audience’s award at the summit that year.
This motivated them to put the idea to work. Since then, they have wowed more judges and was selected to be part of the MITdesignX, a programme at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning dedicated to design innovation and entrepreneurship.
Asked what drives their passion in early childhood education despite their studies in completely unrelated fields, Mr Ang said he was partly inspired by his mother, a pre-school teacher, who brought him along to her classes when he was young.
“I’ll sit there and look on while she teaches. Slowly, I got more personally interested in early childhood education because it can make a lot of difference,” he said.
Both of them also went on several overseas volunteering trips, which opened their eyes to the hardships of children in other parts of the world.
This is why making their product available in developing countries is a key goal for Mr Ang and Ms Ng.
They continue to test ideas, such as a “solar sticker” that absorbs light in the day and can become a light source at night.
“From our volunteering trips, we know children in these countries can’t study at night because there are no light sources. So this is a really important issue to solve,” said Ms Ng.
COVID-19 has also made significant disruptions to education, with the problem likely more acute in developing countries where basic infrastructure is already lacking, added Mr Ang.
The two Singaporeans are also working on an artificial intelligence-based software which will work hand-in-hand with the physical mobile classrooms.
“Apart from the hardware, which is the mobile classroom, we will deliver the curriculum or learning content with an online software. That will essentially allow children to learn properly and effectively wherever they are in the world,” he said.
For now, 10 learning activities created by the pair are available for free on the start-up’s website. Recipients of the cardboard sets can also access these materials by scanning a QR code on an instruction sheet.
“This will be like a Coursera for kids,” said Mr Ang, referring to the US-based open online course provider. “The medium-term plan is to make the software artificial intelligence-based. It will capture how the children are learning and automatically recommends what and how they can learn better.”
Ultimately, the start-up wants to be self-sufficient with its “mobile classroom in a box” soon be available for sale.
“The plan is to build a sustainable start-up where we sell our consumer versions and then use this money to fund the distribution projects we want to do,” said Mr Ang.
For now, they still have remaining funds to give out more than 100 cardboard sets in Singapore and urge those in need to reach out to them.
While they are based in the United States, Mr Ang and Ms Ng have roped in a friend to help them with all local requests and deployment.
“We definitely want and are able to deploy more of our cardboard versions,” said Mr Ang. “So do reach out to us and we will work something out.”