IN­NO­VA­TORS

Is teach­ing chil­dren how to code to prep them for a dig­i­tal fu­ture and to fill the skills gap in the job mar­ket, writes Christina Kennedy

CityPress - - Business -

Eight-year-old girls are meant to play with dolls and do girly things, right? Most def­i­nitely not, says Lindiwe Mat­lali, founder and “chief vol­un­teer” at Africa Teen Geeks, which is get­ting tweens and teens hooked on com­puter cod­ing as a step­ping stone to a ca­reer in pro­gram­ming. This Gaut­eng-based not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cuses on both boys and girls, but Mat­lali and her team of vol­un­teers have made a con­certed ef­fort to bump up the pro­por­tion of girls en­rolled in the pro­gramme from 20% two years ago to 50% to­day.

There is much talk about boost­ing maths and sci­ence lit­er­acy in South African schools, which was in the spot­light again this week as the na­tion was em­bar­rassed anew by the dis­mal per­for­mance of its learn­ers in a global ed­u­ca­tion study.

But lit­tle is said about the need to de­velop com­pe­tency in com­puter sci­ence and cod­ing – a 21st-cen­tury skill that will be crit­i­cal to the work­places of the fu­ture, Mat­lali ex­plains. But it’s more im­me­di­ate than that: there’s a short­age of Java de­vel­op­ment skills right now, ac­cord­ing to the labour de­part­ment.

That’s why she’s made it her mis­sion to get cod­ing into the class­room and make it cool for kids – and now geeksin-train­ing all over the coun­try are get­ting switched on to tech­nol­ogy, in bits and bytes. The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s Satur­day classes at Unisa labs have reached more than 1 000 young­sters so far, and by go­ing to schools to train teach­ers in how to teach cod­ing, the “geek team” is pay­ing it for­ward even more.

“I got in­volved in cod­ing by chance,” Mat­lali ex­plains. While at­tend­ing a pro­gramme at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) a few years ago, she was struck by an eight-year-old girl who pre­sented an app she had cre­ated.

“She was amaz­ing – she was an­swer­ing tech­ni­cal ques­tions in a way you’d ex­pect from an IT ex­ec­u­tive. I was so in­spired, and I thought: ‘Why in South Africa are we not cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties like this?’ I knew it was all about ex­po­sure to tech­nol­ogy, not about how smart our kids were.”

She was alarmed to dis­cover that the of­fi­cial govern­ment school cur­ricu­lum only teaches in­for­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy (ICT) from Grade 10 on­wards – but most of that takes place in for­mer Model C schools. And it’s only the top pri­vate schools that are teach­ing the skill of cod­ing – which goes be­yond cre­at­ing and typ­ing in a Mi­crosoft Word doc­u­ment.

Town­ship and ru­ral schools ei­ther don’t have com­puter labs or, in cases where they do, the teach­ers haven’t been trained to im­part the skills – so the ma­chines gather dust, ex­pen­sive white ele­phants.

“If you go to a town­ship school, chances are you’ll never touch a com­puter till you get to uni­ver­sity,” she says mat­ter-of-factly.

Much of the prob­lem also has to do with per­cep­tions. “Chil­dren think com­puter sci­ence is hard or geeky. The world is go­ing more dig­i­tal and there’s a short­age of coders, but we’re pro­duc­ing chil­dren who have no skill or in­ter­est in this field,” says Mat­lali.

“That’s why we wanted to open a con­ver­sa­tion about teach­ing kids tech­nol­ogy and build­ing a pipe­line. We want them to think: ‘I, too, can be­come a Mark Zucker­berg [the founder of Face­book].’”

She formed Africa Teen Geeks in 2014, which joined forces with Unisa to teach chil­dren how to code at the uni­ver­sity’s com­puter labs – first in Jo­han­nes­burg, but now ex­pand­ing na­tion­wide.

“Now, I’ve got kids as young as six who are cod­ing al­ready – some can’t even speak English, but they’re get­ting the skills and ex­po­sure to help them get ahead. But it’s im­por­tant for the pro­gramme to be sus­tain­able to have an im­pact, not ‘touch and go’.”

Africa Teen Geeks helps, among oth­ers, vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren through the welfare ser­vices. “Th­ese kids come from dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances and can’t even look you in the eye. In the space of a year on the pro­gramme, they are con­fi­dent. One of them, a 16-year-old, cre­ated a styling app for women dur­ing the Fes­ti­val of Code. When asked why she was do­ing it, she replied: ‘Be­cause I’m a

Agirl geek and I’m proud.’” Now that the pro­gramme has hit its straps, tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, banks, govern­ment en­ti­ties, the SABC Foun­da­tion and other busi­nesses have started com­ing to the party with part­ner­ships and spon­sor­ship. In Oc­to­ber, the or­gan­i­sa­tion hosted its sec­ond Fes­ti­val of Code at Unisa, where 100 top young “geeks” aged be­tween nine and 18 gath­ered to learn about Java pro­gram­ming and en­trepreneur­ship. Se­nior in­ter­na­tional ICT per­son­al­i­ties such as Robinne Bur­rell, the ex­ec­u­tive chair of dig­i­tal plat­forms at the Academy of Tele­vi­sion in the US, came to in­spire chil­dren and show them how to build a work­ing pro­to­type of their dig­i­tal ideas. Among the stars of the show was Phumzile Mthombeni (10) from Mid­del­burg in Mpumalanga, who im­pressed so much with her first at­tempt at cod­ing that she in­spired the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s #Gir­lGeek ini­tia­tive. “She had never seen or touched a com­puter, but was such a nat­u­ral. It just made you think how good th­ese chil­dren could be if they are ex­posed to cod­ing and given op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Mat­lali re­flects. The Fes­ti­val of Code par­tic­i­pants had been iden­ti­fied as show­ing prom­ise and ap­ti­tude dur­ing Com­puter Sci­ence Week, where chil­dren from town­ship schools are in­tro­duced to com­puter sci­ence at Unisa labs around the coun­try. Now, many are start­ing their jour­ney to be­come cer­ti­fied as ju­nior Java de­vel­op­ers – hand­ing them the gift of an op­por­tu­nity to change their lives.

Next year, thanks to a part­ner­ship with the Mpumalanga ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion de­part­ment, Africa Teen Geeks will be pi­lot­ing cod­ing in eight pro­vin­cial schools. Four Gaut­eng schools will also take part. The Or­a­cle Academy will help train the teach­ers, who will use free pe­ri­ods or life ori­en­ta­tion pe­ri­ods to teach cod­ing. But this is just the start of what Mat­lali hopes will be­come the norm.

“We want to get code taught as part of the cur­ricu­lum,” says Mat­lali, “with a fo­cus on pri­mary schools. Kids who can code do well in maths. They learn how to think log­i­cally. If you know the skill of cod­ing, you can im­me­di­ately go to work, even if you can’t at­tend uni­ver­sity. We need to start ex­pos­ing th­ese kids and show­ing them what they are able to achieve. We need to in­vest in the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion – and not just through in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity and data.”

An­other Africa Teen Geeks project for next year is Knit 2 Code, which aims to get young town­ship girls in­ter­ested in tech­nol­ogy by link­ing knit­ting to com­puter sci­ence. No com­puter ac­cess is needed for this novel ini­tia­tive that has been de­vel­oped specif­i­cally for the African con­text in con­junc­tion with Mat­lali’s for­mer MIT pro­fes­sor. “It doesn’t cost any­thing ex­cept wool and nee­dles – about R20 – so it’s very cost-ef­fec­tive,” she ex­plains.

“Cod­ing teaches you how to cre­ate soft­ware and be cre­ative. So it’s not just about learn­ing how to use the pro­grams, but ac­tu­ally cre­at­ing them. You can sit and cre­ate a new game that’s even bet­ter than the one you’re cur­rently play­ing. Don’t just use soft­ware; cre­ate it.”

MIND THE APP Lucinda Coet­zee is a proud geek, she’s learn­ing the skills that will be crit­i­cal to the work­places of the fu­ture

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