Earlier this month I was approached by my friend Hattie Okundaye of Silvanus International to facilitate a two-day computer programming workshop for a group of students in Monrovia. Hattie has been in Liberia for the past 15 years, teaching, training teachers, and working in administration. She runs computer literacy programs as well as regular literacy classes. I’ve been interested in technology and education in Liberia for a long time, and helping to facilitate a workshop like this was an exciting opportunity for me!
(Hattie was moving around so fast during the workshop this was the only picture I managed to grab of her… And even here she’s in mid-blink!)
This workshop was a pilot for Hattie as she explores the idea of teaching computer programming to Liberian students. Software engineering is a rapidly growing global field, and it has the potential to create all kinds of job opportunities in developing countries. As our world becomes more connected, the ability to code becomes almost like a superpower: it gives people the tools to create and engage with their environment in powerful ways. It’s easy to forget that software is not just used by our computers, phones and tablets, but it’s shaping all areas of our daily lives.
Hattie is especially passionate about inspiring young girls to consider software engineering as a potential career. After getting her degree in electronic engineering, and before starting work in Liberia, Hattie worked as a field engineer at Eastman Kodak. Throughout her schooling and professional career, she has been all too aware of the gender gap that exists in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Even though many of the early computer pioneers were women, somehow the idea that “computers are for boys” took hold in our global culture. Hattie wants to change this (And I do too!).
Our workshop was hosted by the Young Ladies in Waiting, a mentoring program for young girls founded by Rev. Princess C. Knuckles of the United Methodist Church in Liberia.
In addition to enlisting my help, Hattie invited her friend Barbara Lloyd, a pastor and a teacher here (who spent years working in the school system in South Carolina). Hattie also brought two of her top computer students to serve as teaching assistants.
We had 18 students in our workshop, 13 women, and 5 men. There’s a school for the deaf close by to our venue (a Methodist school called “Hope for the Deaf”), and students there were invited to participate too. We had 5 deaf students attending our workshop, as well as an interpreter to translate for them.
We started the workshop by introducing basic computer skills — in our pre-workshop survey, we found that 13 out of the 18 students reported never having touched a computer before! None of them knew what coding was, either. So we introduced the names of the computer parts (monitor, keyboard, trackpad, etc), and then had them all work through an online lesson that taught them how to navigate using the mouse (drag and drop, etc).
Some of the students had never used a track pad before — their partners helped show how to move their fingers.
Before we started programming, we talked to the class about “thinking like a computer”. Unlike humans, computers cannot guess what we mean — they can only do what we say. To illustrate this, we did a demonstration where we had our teaching assistants pretend to be computers while the class gave them instructions on how to make a sardine sandwich. (This is a common activity for introduction to computer science classes in the states, except usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are made… we adapted the lesson to our cultural context 🙂 )
Our assistants would take everything the class said literally in ways that would create hilarious results. For example, when asked to “put the sardines to the pan”, thinking that the assistants would empty the sardines in the can, the assistants followed his instructions literally (like a computer would) and put their the entire unopened jar of sardines onto the pan. The class quickly realized they had to specify every detail, every movement if they wanted the “computer” to do the proper action. This kind of thinking is at the core of computer science.
After the demo, and once the students were comfortable navigating their computers, we helped them create accounts and log into Code.org’s One Hour of Code challenge. The One Hour of Code challenge is a movement that started in 2013 to generate awareness and interest for computer science by teaching basic programming using interactive puzzles and games. (I highly recommend trying it out for yourself!)
We had them start with the classic “Angry Birds” lesson — the students had to write code to help the “Angry Bird” catch the pig that stole his eggs.
As you can see, the code was built using little puzzle pieces that would give the bird instructions. Each one of these instructions is a line of written code. After each level is complete, the student can press a button to reveal the code that they had just written through the puzzle pieces. The challenges get harder and harder as students complete more lessons.
The students were tentative at first, but enjoyed the funny sounds the birds and pigs would make. As the puzzles increased in difficulty, groups would form around computers as everyone shared ideas and approaches.
My favorite parts were the cheers and smiles that erupted when an individual or group completed an especially difficult challenge.
We continued to work on One Hour of Code through the second day of the workshop. Students that finished all of the challenges moved on to other parts of the website and tried new coding puzzles. At the end of the day, we handed out certificates and took a group photo:
It was so much fun to see the enthusiasm of the students in the workshop. In our post-workshop survey, all 18 students reported that they were interested in programming as a possible career. When asked about their favorite part of coding, the students responded: “the tough thinking part of it, because it help me to think critically” and “it helps one to think very hard in solving [problems]”. All of the students said they’d recommend the course to a friend — one even wanted it to be a course he could take at his university. One student wrote, “[Coding] is everyone’s business”, another said “I want others to learn like I am learning”.
I was very pleased with the success of our workshop, and hope it paves the way for future efforts of this kind!