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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Sparking an interest in programming

Coding kids: Students from SK Taman Megah, after the WeSpeakCode workshop held at the school.

Coding kids: Students from SK Taman Megah, after the WeSpeakCode workshop held at the school.

Young Malaysians now have a chance, through various not-for-profit programmes, to learn more about computer languages.

WHEN Danaraj Ram Kumar was seven years old, he disassembled his home computer and put it back together... only to realise that it didn’t work anymore.

A computer technician then taught him what went wrong, and the rest was history: Danaraj has since developed a keen interest in computer science and technology.

While completing his diploma in computing at KDU College, Penang, he became involved as a Microsoft Student Partner (MSP), where he learnt to build applications, host events and ‘evangilise’ to other students through small tech workshops on-campus.

Currently the only advocate for the Microsoft’s YouthSpark programme in Malaysia, the 21-year-old considers himself very lucky due to the many opportunities he has been given.

“I first found out about YouthSpark while I was in secondary school. However, I didn’t know where to start.

Overwhleming response:The WeSpeakCode event at Taylor’s University, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.
Overwhelming response: The #WeSpeakCode event at Taylor's University, drew a large and enthusiastic crowd.
 

“Being a YouthSpark advocate now is a great way to pay it forward as I got the chance to pursue what I love. I hope to share my knowledge and reach out to other people so that they can do the same,” said Danaraj, who is currently studying software engineering at Taylor’s University.

A programme to empower youths in education, entrepreneurship and employment, Microsoft YouthSpark aspires to reach out to 300 million youth by next year as well as to close the gap between people who have the opportunities and resources to be successful and those who do not.

As such, resources from over 30 programmes such as the Kodu Game Lab and Microsoft Digital Literacy are available on the YouthSpark Hub for free.

Young advocates

There are currently over 142 YouthSpark advocates which consist of tech-savvy youths aged 14 to 24 who are interested in social change and using technology for a greater good across the world.

These advocates are trained to become subject matter experts in its programmes and are expected to demonstrate the YouthSpark tools and resources available to other students at their secondary school or college campuses.

According to Danaraj, the Microsoft YouthSpark programme simply “insists that everyone can code”.

Looks easy: These girls from SMK St. Mary, seem pleased with what they see on the laptop screen during a workshop.
Looks easy: These girls from SMK St. Mary, seem pleased with what they see on the laptop screen during a workshop.
 

“We have children as young as six coming forward to try their hand at coding. It might be some basic visual-based programming which they learn through playing games, but the important thing is providing the exposure to them. This is where hands-on workshops come in,” he said.

Just like Danaraj, Code Equality founders Chong Sher Minn, 23, and Wong Wunmin, 27, stressed that the best platform to get people started on coding is through hands-on workshops.

“Most people who come to our classes have no prior coding experience. So, when they build something and come up with an end product which they can upload and subsequently, access online, it is very satisfying for the participants as well as for both of us,” said Wong.

Chong concurred: “All our efforts are worth it when people show up for our workshops and tell us they’ve gained something out of it.”

For Chong, having access to all the resources when she was younger made being a computer science major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States (US) and now, a web developer at Softspace, an easy choice.

Young mentor: Danaraj teaching Khairy how to code at his office in Putrajaya.
 

“I feel lucky because I have a family that introduced coding to me and eventually, an amazing ‘introduction to coding’ instructor at college that made me fall in love with code,” she said.

While Wong has always been interested in coding and web development, she did not know what it really entailed until she started working as a product manager at an Internet recruitment website.

“I work with developers who build online products and I get really excited to see that one can build something from scratch with just codes. I do regret not doing computer science in college as I was not exposed to what it was when I was younger,” she said, adding that she majored in Management Science (Finance) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US.

Both are hopeful that through Code Equality’s initiatives, no other young Malaysian would harbour such regrets.

The not-for-profit organisation aims to promote computer science awareness among Malaysians, providing early exposure so that those who are passionate would go on to pursue a career in technology.

When asked on how they ended up calling themselves Code Equality, Wong said that it was a natural decision.

“Our goal is to provide equal opportunities in learning computer science. We strive to ensure our events are available to all, too,” said Wong.

Dynamic duo: Wong (left) and Chong are keen for more girls to break into the tech industry through their coding classes.
Dynamic duo: Wong (left) and Chong are keen for more girls to break into the tech industry through their coding classes.
 

“We really believe that everyone should have the opportunity to learn how to code. It is really fun and there’s so many job opportunities out there for quality people in tech. Instead of just funneling students into IT or computer science courses, we need to get people who are really excited about it,” shared Chong, adding that their workshops have seen participants from the age of 12 to 50 taking a crack at coding.

The dynamic duo met at a mutual friend’s house party in late 2012 and knew that they wanted to work on technology education in the country.

“We both knew we wanted to work on technology education, especially with secondary school students here. We just weren’t sure of how exactly we were going to go about it,” said Chong.

A year after that, the two reconnected to form Code Equality upon realising how important that an initiative like theirs is.

“Technology is only going to become more important in our lives. If we don’t build a pipeline of people interested in technology soon, we’ll find ourselves in a pinch when we need quality, skilled tech people down the line,” stressed Wong.

They also hope to “squash the misconceptions about people working in tech”.

“Not many people who are working in technology are visible to students in school. There is a common misconception that developers will end up coding in basements and doing boring stuff – which is what I thought before I graduated, too. I know now that it’s not true,” said Chong.

Speaking in code

Microsoft Malaysia citizenship manager Mandeep Kaur emphasised that sparking an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in younger children is so important.

“When YouthSpark was launched two years ago, I felt like this global initiative was something that we really needed as there is so much talent here in Malaysia. We want to give them the opportunity to get interested in STEM and to pick up coding,” she said.

One of the opportunities include Imagine Cup, which gets university students all over the world competing for the ‘World Cup of IT’, said Mandeep Kaur.

Microsoft subsidaries hold the global student technology competition within their countries, where teams of up to four students (who are allowed to receive help from mentors and student associates) are expected to develop apps on a Microsoft platform based on a given challenge. Over 2,000 participants from local higher education institutions get involved in the Malaysian edition each year.

Worthwhile effort: Mandeep Kaur feels it is important for children to focus on STEM education.
 

The winning team from each country enters the semifinals, where the very best of those teams then wins a trip to Seattle, in the US for the Imagine Cup finals.

But before students can get involved in hackathons or in competitions like the Imagine Cup, they would have to be exposed to basic coding first.

Dubbed #WeSpeakCode, Code For Malaysia, which was held earlier this year, was one of the biggest technology education initiatives within the country.

“Inspired by Code.org’s successful ‘Hour of Code’ campaign, we wanted to teach basic coding to students of all ages, from primary to university students,” said Mandeep Kaur.

In April, over 1,500 students from SK Taman Megah, Petaling Jaya, SMK St Mary, Kuala Lumpur, Methodist Boys’ School, Kuala Lumpur, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, Perak, Taylor’s University, and KDU University College came together for the Asia Pacific Week of Code.

Local celebrities such as actress Sazzy Falak and former Miss Malaysia Deborah Henry collaborated with Microsoft and six education institutions nationwide for this week-long coding campaign.

The end of this campaign saw 70 students getting the opportunity to meet US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak during the launch of the Malaysian Global Innovation Centre (MaGIC) in Cyberjaya.

“Some of the younger students even got to show President Obama and Najib their codes. It was such an awesome experience,” said Danaraj.

However, it was an event leading up to the coding campaign that proved to be the most rewarding for him.

“We were seeking endorsements from the government for another one of our initiatives, Innovate for Good. One day, I got a call from Mandeep Kaur, asking me to get ready to teach (Youth and Sports Minister) Khairy Jamaluddin how to code.

“I was shocked to say the least, but it was a really good opportunity! Khairy was really interested in coding as well, which definitely boosted our campaign.”

Sparks for the future

Although the demand for Code Equality classes has been pretty high (which Chong and Wong attribute to the fact that the classes are free), they haven’t found it difficult to organise monthly workshops.

“As our venues are sponsored, we run at almost no cost, which has been fairly easy to manage. We intend to keep running our workshops like this.

“The local tech community here is also usually more than happy to help out with our events and we’ve never had a shortage of volunteers, which is nice,” said Chong.

Yes we can Participants are all smiles after successfully completing a workshop for tertiary students at Microsoft’s office in Kuala Lumpur. kKKualaXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.
Yes we can! Participants are all smiles after successfully completing a workshop for tertiary students at Microsoft's office in Kuala Lumpur.
 

Still, the girls as well as Mandeep Kaur agree that getting tech education moving in Malaysia is no easy feat.

“Our biggest challenge is getting the workshop materials to appeal to everyone as we cater to a wide range of ages and coding experiences. Also, getting students interested enough to start exploring programming languages on their own has been quite a challenge, too,” said Chong.

For Mandeep Kaur, her ultimate hope is for tech education to be a part of the national school curriculum.

“There is, however, clearly a digital and opportunity divide in our country. Most schools simply don’t have the infrastructure to conduct tech education. However, we’re working on it,” she said.

Mandeep Kaur shared that Microsoft is looking into running a pilot programme at several schools in the Klang Valley to show the feasibility of tech education in the country.

With the help of her team as well as YouthSpark advisor Michael Teoh, YouthSpark star John-son Oei and Danaraj, she also hopes to organise more events such as #WeSpeakCode as it reaches a wide range of people.

Wong added that Code Equality is also extending a hand to people, particularly teachers or parents, who would like to start organising regular coding workshops on their own.

“Eventually, we want to make our organisation sustainable enough so that anyone out there who wants to organise a coding class can use our resources so we don’t have to go out there to teach.

“Our monthly workshops are open to everyone, so we would encourage them to come for that first. We’re also more than happy to provide advice and some online resources to help them start running their own programmes,” she said.

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