Computer science and coding

Chennai-based NGO ASHA, in collaboration with Amazon’s Future Engineers Programme, is helping kids across all government schools in the city learn the ropes of robots, computers, and more.

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This article is sponsored by Amazon India

At a public school in Ramanjeri on the outskirts of Chennai, teacher Sitaezhularasi’s classes are a riot of fun. Here, computer science and technology take on a whole new meaning as kids learn to code through “cup games” and grids drawn on the floor with chalk. Each of these cups represents a “command” and children use these cups in sequence to make a “program” while learning computer science basics such as sequencing, algorithms, and loops.

After engaging in these “offline” activities, students put their skills to the real test on computers and laptops provided by Amazon.

“The kids love these activities because they make it fun,” their teacher says.

Sitaezhularasi’s role as a computer teacher associated with ASHA Chennai, an NGO working on education for underprivileged children, was inspiring.

The computer skills you impart to these children helped encourage students to think logically and become adept at creating technology rather than just consuming it. As she watches her class become masters on programs like Blockly and Scratch, it gives Sitaezhularasi a sense of pride.

(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sASVELJvVLw (/embed)

While ASHA Chennai has been supporting government schools in the city since 2004 by sending teachers to rural areas, in 2015, they decided to make a change.

Students need to be equipped with technological tools that will stand them well in the coming time. Thus, the NGO started sending computer tutors to them.

And the results are really amazing.

Future Engineer Program

“The children began to excel in computers despite their weakness in other subjects,” Setazholarasi notes.

In 2022, Amazon’s Future Engineers Program has stepped in to help NGOs expand into an additional 100 schools. This was done by helping them hire teachers and providing equipment such as laptops that teachers could use in their classrooms. Amazon has also introduced many class chats in these schools through which Amazon employees connect with students and share their journey to demystify jobs in the tech industry for students. This increased the quality of teaching. To enhance the program beyond these 100 schools, Amazon and ASHA will also offer exploratory computer science classes to an additional 150 schools and 90,000 students.

Kids are taught the basics of coding and computer science
Kids are taught the basics of coding and computer science. Photo Credits: Stills from Amazon’s “Tools for Tomorrow” video.

As Rajaraman, an ASHA Chennai volunteer and program coordinator, explains, the partnership with Amazon was “perfect.”

The teacher is among the many senior professionals associated with the NGO’s Chennai branch. Rajaraman tells of his time volunteering here as “fantastic”.

“Before joining Asha Chennai in 2002, I was associated with the chapter in North Carolina, where I used to work,” he says, adding that it aligns with the NGO’s goal of providing basic education to the underprivileged.

“There is also a lot of freedom that is given to each chapter of the NGO, to take an approach they see fit. Today, this is important, because education is critical to bringing about change in society. It is a basic need like food, water and a roof to live under.”

He says they earlier would send computer teachers to schools in rural areas of Tamil Nadu including Tiruvalur, Tirunelveli and Chennai-Kanchipuram, but the numbers have been increasing since then. “The teacher visits the school one day a week and the frequency is slowly increased. During this time, the curriculum is designed in a way that addresses different aspects of computer literacy.”

Elaborating on this, Rajaraman says that for grades 1 and 2, the curriculum aims to introduce them to keyboard, mouse and other parts of the hardware. “We then move on to simple games as they get comfortable with these features. As we move to higher levels, the complexity increases. Students are taught drawing tools and equivalent applications Powerpoint, Excel, and Word.”

Whatever the level, the focus is on a hands-on approach. One semester is devoted to a project in which students are evaluated on the basis of their submission. “During this time, students will be expected to deliver a sophisticated and complex presentation using the skills they have learned,” he adds.

When students are not practicing, they are engaged in disconnected activities.

Children engage in non-conductive activities in order to review coding concepts
Children engage in offline activities in order to review coding concepts. Image Credits: Stills from Amazon’s “Tools for Tomorrow” video.

“This includes network games played on the floor, or Robo games, where students alternate between playing the role of a robot and the role of a human, thus reviewing the codes they have learned,” says Rajaraman.

These activities aim to spark children’s imagination and curiosity towards technology-based learning even without the use of technology, for example when the school experiences frequent power outages.

Rajaraman notes that the program has already instilled a sense of confidence in the young minds of Chennai’s rural schools. “I’ve seen a shift in their attitude towards computers and technology,” he adds. “Many of the children who come to these schools do not have the opportunity to deal with computers either at home or outside. Therefore, when our teachers introduce them to these devices, this is their only chance.”

Recounting his own experiences with children, he says, “Unlike before, now when I visit these schools and ask questions like ‘What is computer memory?’ “,” Where is the hard drive and what is its role? They find out the answer themselves.

By partnering with Amazon, ASHA Chennai provides laptops to rural schools
Partnering with Amazon, ASHA Chennai provides laptops to rural schools. Image credits: Stills from Amazon’s “Tools for Tomorrow” video.

Such is the talent shown by the children that as he entered the classrooms, Rajaraman became inspired. “Ask them what they want to grow up to be, and the response comes—a computer teacher, an engineer…”

“With Amazon Future Engineer, ASHA is now part of a strong group of organizations dedicated to supporting computer science education for students who traditionally don’t get access. In the last year of this association, we’ve gained a lot through continued engagement with this group and have built a scalable approach To get us involved,” Rajaraman adds.

Through the program’s efforts and NGO support, Chennai’s children are seeing a new wave in teaching methods, which Rajaraman says is the beginning of a better tomorrow.


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