BUKIT MERTAJAM: A schoolteacher went into the restroom to sob in anguish two years ago. Then, she made a decision, one that would change the lives of hundreds of underprivileged children in mainland Penang.
It was June 2013 and Alina Amir, 27, was invigilating a History exam for Form Four students. It was an open book test. Ten minutes in, the students “were all just staring at their books, opened to the first page”.
“I asked a boy if he knew what to do. He shook his head and continued staring at his book. Another boy pleaded, ‘Cikgu, macam mana nak buat ni?’ (Teacher, how do I do this?) No one was writing anything. No one.
“It was not their fault. They were not ready for it,” she said.
Alina cried and poured her heart out on her Facebook page and described the helplessness she felt as a teacher. Her posting went viral.
With three other friends, Alina formed a free after-school learning centre. Their Arus Academy is one of the winners of the inaugural Star Golden Hearts award for their selflessness in educating children.
After the exam, Alina started free night classes in her living room, teaching Mathematics and English. For a year, up to 18 students would cram into her flat. More wanted help but Alina had no more space.
Last year, her flat’s management offered to rent her the block’s multi-purpose hall three times a week.
Thirty students showed up on the first day. More than 120 came on the third day.
Around the time Alina was teaching, David Chak, 25, a teacher in the same school, launched Project ACE – After-school Coding Enterprise.
“Project ACE taught software coding in Python using Google Chromebooks and Lego robotics, with building devices using Arduino micro-controller boards,” Chak said.
By December 2014, Alina, Chak and two more teachers – Felicia Yoon, 25, and Daniel Russel, 26, – received RM50,000 from the Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MaGIC) and formed Arus Academy in a shoplot in Taman Sejahtera, Bukit Mertajam.
“The first semester in the academy revolves around a storyline of secret agents trying to save the world,” said Alina.
“The lessons take children through 21st-century skills like algorithms, binary coding, scratch programming, electronics and circuitry and Arduino software.”
In the second semester, the children applied what they learned to build things.
To date, Arus Academy’s students have made vacuum cleaners, automatic whiteboard cleaners, anti-theft alarms and tracking devices for women’s handbags, automatic document-shelving racks, and an automatic trolley to help senior citizens, to name a few.
Although armed with degrees, the founders of Arus Academy shunned the corporate world and joined Teach for Malaysia, a non-profit organisation focused on ending education inequity in the country.
Alina and Chak are still teaching at school, while Yoon and Russel now work full-time in the academy.
At the academy, the students show little of the awkwardness of youth.
G. Gayatri, 15, cheerfully declared there was no other tuition centre like it.
“Here, we learn about innovation, critical thinking, and how to solve problems,” she said. “In other tuition centres, they just go with the subjects.”
F. Felicia Anne, 15, said she made an automatic vacuum cleaner with sensors, “so it won’t hit any people or obstacles. Its vacuum is propeller powered”.
Tan Zhi Hang, 15, saw Arus Academy as the answer to wasted school holidays.
“I normally do nothing but sleep and play computer games during school breaks,” he said. “Here, I don’t waste my time any more. I learn so many things.”