FEEL GOOD | SA game, to be featured in Paris, teaches thousands of students coding without using a computer

2020-02-17 11:49 - Selene Brophy
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Six out of 10 South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 years face a future without a job – one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

And while President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a plan to fight youth unemployment by allocating 1% of the National Budget to a new Youth Unemployment Initiative – the fact remains that South Africa needs to upskill its youth for a future-fit workforce. 

The president says government will this year introduce Coding and Robotics in Grades R to 3, in 200 schools – across the country to equip learners with the required skills for the 4th Industrial Revolution.

The plan is to implement it fully by 2022. This is one of the steps taken by government to improve education in the country. But the roll-out is slow, only compounding the skills shortage and unemployment crisis facing our youth.  

A coding project called TANKS – which originated at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Port Elizabeth, South Africa – might just be one way to speed things up, inspiring students across the country to learn coding, without even using a single computer.

This is the beautiful simplicity of the game that uses puzzle pieces, a mobile app and image recognition to allow pupils from any background to learn computer coding.

WATCH | How TANKS actually works to teach children coding without using a computer 

"Last year and this year’s invitation have directly resulted in new partners back home who now take us seriously and want to contribute through for example sponsorships or investments."

It has also resulted in various new platforms in SA to share about the project.

"The day before leaving for Paris, I will for example be talking to 300 teachers in Pretoria."

'No official buy-in from department of education'

But Professor Greyling says although various role players in the Department of Education are very aware of the project and very supportive, he has “not yet succeeded in getting official buy in from the department”.

We observe various other coding initiatives and partnerships with the department, but they always either require computer labs or expensive robots.

“We know we can make a much bigger impact with TANKS."

He uses actual examples of the more than 20 000 learners TANKS has impacted during workshops across the province. 

Buhle Pikoli is one such example, having just enrolled for a Diploma in Software Development, after being inspired by TANKS while still in high school. 

'I used to believe only engineers and doctors are happiest in this world'

The 19-year-old from Port Elizabeth says in the beginning he certainly had a liking for computers, but somehow lost interest. That is until he played the game for the first time on Mandela Day in 2018.

"Growing up in the place where I grew up I was actually exposed to people who believe engineers and doctors are happiest in this world," says Buhle. 

Despite his love for computers, he was going to further his interest into becoming a medical doctor, but TANKS inspired him with the ease within which he could solve the problems.

"The engaging process was interesting - when Professor Greyling told us what programming is all about, in identify the problem and finding a computer-based solution - I was deeply interested in it.

"I found it easy - each level you go up with - it gets more complicated and you have to find new ways to get the tank into position. It renewed the spark and my ambition to work with computers. Added to this, my teachers saw an improvement in my results as well as my attitude. 

Buhle says he knows he is not the only scholar coming from a township that didn't have enough access to resources. 

'It makes me feel  like I should create a movement'

"Where I come from there are people who are brilliant but don’t have exposure to computers. It makes me feel  like I should create a movement."

And it is in fact becoming a movement.

Professor Greyling says games and school kits have been distributed to around 150 schools through sponsorships, and they can do more. 

"Around 30 schools have purchased school kits from us. Joburg Libraries have also reached around 3 000 learners with TANKS across their libraries."

Right now Professor Greyling works with some 30 facilitators across the country - mostly in PE, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Wosley, Boeland and Pretoria.  

Manchala Sithole is a TANKS Facilitator working in the North West province for the last two years. He says he was initially referred by his Pastor Manuel Landman. 

Sithole is a qualified mechanical engineer but spends his weekends teaching scholars about the principles of Python and C++ using the board game through his NGO - Keep that Gold Shining"aiming to unleash the potential of the youth of South Africa by using a board game to learn to code in python".

"We work almost every Saturday. Going to different provinces, seeing more than four schools a weekend. Funds are a challenge but the project itself is successful."

Sithole says the success is in how learners receive the project.

"Working with Grade 7 pupils, it’s clear some of them they have never used a smart phone, so for that fact it is an eye-opener for the kids. To expose them to the smartphone and the board game they are now wanting to be more exposed to computers."

And the ongoing outreach is as much reward for him, he says.

"We would leave our numbers with the schools, especially in instances where we would not complete all levels of the game. But the impact is great, as the students would get their community leaders calling us to confirm if their answers are correct afterwards.   

'Even a parent that does not have a science or coding background can teach TANKS'

"The most interesting thing about this is that anybody can train kids to use this game. Anybody, even a parent that does not have a science or coding background," says Sithole. 

As he prepares to head to Paris, Professor Greyling says much like the other African projects, he feels being the only representative heading to the Mobile Learning Week does not reflect the true power of TANKS and those who use it.  He believes taking one of his facilitators would make the team more authentic but the funds are just not available right now. 

"Coding is one of the scarcest skills in SA – companies are desperate to find qualified software developers and constantly have vacancies – it is a global skill, and many of our software companies have big clients in foreign countries. As the economy transforms, the need for software developers will just get bigger.

"Our graduates have very little challenges to find employment, with the above average graduates having to choose between job offers," says Greyling.  

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