Project ACE: A high-tech after-school initiative

EXCLUSIVE: One teacher goes the extra mile to bring innovation into the classroom.

PETALING JAYA: Software coding and robotics classes after school.

This is not going on in an international school in the Klang Valley, but at SMK Taman Sejahtera in Bukit Mertajam in Project After School Coding Enterprise (ACE) - an after-school initiative run by David Chak, a 24-year old Teach for Malaysia participant attached to the school.

"Project ACE is not just an after-school coding class. It is empowerment. Coding is often widely regarded as one of the most essential 21st Century skills to have. It is gaining global prominence in education systems.

With coding knowledge and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) exposure, anything and everything is possible," said Chak.

Outlining the program to The Star Online, Chak said Project ACE aimed to teach interested students about software coding in Python using Google Chromebooks and Lego robotics after school hours, with those building devices using Arduino microcontroller boards using C.

"However, the thing about coding is that once you know how to code, it doesn't matter what programming language you are using," said Chak.

He added that another aim of Project ACE was to teach students English and motivate them to use the language, and to give students an alternative route to learn fundamental academic skills.

"The whole programme is run in English, as I strongly believe if you teach English, you don't just teach it in the classroom. You give them a reason why they need to learn English. It also gives them a way to apply what they learn in Mathematics in a problem-solving, logical sense. Coding has a lot of mathematical logic," said Chak.

He said he also had Universiti Sains Malaysia electrical engineering postgraduate students come in to mentor the students.

On the current student figures, Chak said that 19 students remained out of the 30 that had applied to join when it began this March.

"Even with thorough screening, including an application letter to join, we still wound up with 11 dropouts. Those who dropped out, did so mainly because of family problems and new tuition classes. Only a small handful of dropouts were due to a loss of interest," said Chak.

The Geography teacher spoke fondly of the successes of his Project ACE participants, which ranged from Form 2 to Form 4 students.

"It is memorable whenever they get something working. I remember I gave them a task to make a robot that walks on two feet. Moving around on wheels is one thing, but walking is a whole new dimension of mechanics at work. They tried, failed and tried again - and finally when they got it working, the student told me it was like watching his child walk for the first time," said Chak.

Chak added that through the project, he saw students who were initially very quiet and reserved become able to confidently deliver presentations.

"It is very surprising to see how they have grown," said Chak.

He also spoke of the effort put in by Project ACE participants in preparing for the Ministry of Education's Pertandingan Inovasi.

"We were trying to make an automated whiteboard cleaner and we worked for days and nights on it - and many times I was the one running out of positive energy and the perseverance needed to go on. It was the perseverance of the students and their grit that sustained the project to its completion," said Chak.

Chak also said these competitions, including the National Robotic Competition drove Project ACE's students to persevere and gave them something to focus on.

He added that he was grateful to the Project ACE students for sharing their spirit and positive energy to motivate him when he was tired, adding that the can-do spirit showed by the students displayed why he was motivated to start Project ACE in the first place.

"Project ACE aims to not only teach them coding, but also soft skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It also teaches them to be persistent and never give up. I want to inspire the next generation of Malaysians the same way I was inspired by my teachers. I benefited from good teachers through my entire life, almost to a point that without them - I wouldn't be here today," said Chak.

Asked about support for Project ACE, Chak said that while the school gave a classroom for the project, it relied on fundraising efforts and donors to keep it working.

"For example, the Penang Science Cluster loaned us some equipment, and through that, another company - DreamCatcher helped fund other expenses, such as the paper we use. We are currently running a fundraiser to support our year-end trip down to Google's Kuala Lumpur offices, as well as to support our booths at the Penang Science Fair this November," said Chak.

He added that Project ACE welcomed donations from the public.

"It runs solely on public generosity. We would be very grateful for any donation. Apart from that, we would also welcome donations in kind, like used laptops and Arduino learning kits," said Chak.

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