Angela Ng traveled to Zimbabwe in June 2022, and this blog is written from her perspective. 

I went into my time in Zimbabwe knowing that everything would go off track: while American and very time conscious, I’ve spent a lot of time in other parts of the world that value time spent with one another over tasks. 

Here are the things that I thought would go wrong:

  • Not getting through everything because people were hours late
  • The learners not having enough experience with computers at all to grasp coding concepts

Now I would write a list of everything that didn’t go as planned, but I would rather focus on the positive first: The learners understood the material quicker than I thought they would. They not only understood it, they thrived. In a place where there is no wifi, very little data or signal, and only a couple of computers – these students were able to code on CS Academy and move their Finch Robots within three hours. If you only read this far in my blog post, this is what I want you to know. These students that have to walk as much as 5 miles to school every day, that have to collect their water from wells, and that do not have exposure to much technology, grasped the concepts without difficulty. They were invested in their education and couldn’t wait to learn more. They couldn’t wait to see what they could create. 

My main takeaway? You can’t take the spirit out of these Zimbabweans. They are determined to do it all.

The Details:

The goal was to collaborate with The Nyadire Connection to give high school students the opportunity to develop tangible computer programming skills that can be leveraged for employment upon graduation. We decided that the most sustainable way to do this was to support the high school in teaching Computer Science: training teachers to teach this curriculum in their classes and as an after school coding club.

We decided to take Carnegie Mellon University’s (CMU) CS Academy, a free online CS curriculum, to Zimbabwe as it had notes and allowed for autograding to make it easier for teachers. We also thought that having the robots would be a wonderful, physical representation of why and how code matters, and took Finch robots. We are so lucky to work with CMU’s CS Academy, as 5 of the members on our team were CMU alumni and took 15-112, CMU’s premiere computer science class; 3 of our members served as Teaching Assistants for 15-112. Those same three were able to turn CS Academy into an offline version for use  in Zimbabwe, as we knew the internet situation was weak. We were also lucky to find a partnership in BirdBrain Technologies, whose founder was also a CMU alum. The new Finch’s connected over bluetooth, which were incapable with our computers, but the company didn’t need their old Finch’s, and graciously donated them all for our students in Zimbabwe to keep!

With not paying school fees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was leftover money for Computer Reach and The Nyadire Connection to donate “pop-up” classrooms, which consisted of refurbished Linux computers and projects for students to learn. We knew that the primary school had wifi, and the high school did not. We knew that there were electricity cuts and we would have to use a generator to power our workshops. What we did not know was that even though the pop-up classrooms were delivered in March, they didn’t set up the computers and use them until we got there in June: they didn’t know the passwords of the computers!

The first day in Zimbabwe was just settling in from jetlag – and as we first arrived no one was around so we just prepped our USB and other materials! The second day was just as hectic as we were hoping we would have the full day to set up all the computers and prepare our lesson plans for the next day to all the situational constraints. We lost half the day when they wanted us to go to church, be introduced to many community shakers, and lunch. We met at the primary school at 2 pm and realized that one of the installation manuals in our guide relied on “sudo apt get” and internet, which we could not connect a single computer to (in about two weeks we would find out the wifi didn’t reach the computer classrooms, but there were ethernet cables that no one told us about!). A quick call to our team stationed in the US letting them solve all of those problems while we didn’t have internet (another struggle with the lack of bars to even make calls! Walking around a field till I found a couple bars – it would be the story of my whole week). We set up the rest of everything we could knowing most of it would be workable (not the prettiest solutions). 

We had recruited 6 teachers for our first teacher training workshop: all computer science, science, or math teachers. A quick double take on the computer science teachers – not in the way we view computer science, but for many of them, “programming” was being able to use a program, such as Microsoft Word or VLC player! The first lesson was just an introduction to what computer science, coding, and robotics was. It went off to a late start: we had to wait for the minister to come to bless the project, the head of the school to be there, and all the teachers were also late! Luckily, they grasped the materials so we flew through our lesson plan – until snack time and lunch! Snack time and lunch are very important in Zimbabwean culture. As an American, I’ve really gotten used to eating at my desk or just snacking throughout the day while working, but meals here were an hour long and expected to be taken as a real break, and there were many female teachers that helped set up and clean up the meals and disappeared for longer as well. Part of it was the local food, ugali, was eaten with hands (gravy over cornmeal), so there wasn’t really the opportunity to snack while on the computer; the other half was we were really exhausting these teachers by doing a two week intensive study. 

We realized quickly that even before teaching coding classes, there should be general typing skills classes. Caps lock was used as shift key, and syntax depended heavily on knowing where parentheses were. The hardest part about coding was remembering the syntax, so I stuck stickynotes in the middle of their screen to remember the parantheses before asking for help! The teachers soon got really into CS Academy, oftening not wanting to pause to lecture, but really figure out the problems they were on. Even when we did a exercise together in class, they didn’t fill it in while we were doing it, they went back afterwards to see if they could do it themselves. Some concepts, such as moving the mouse around and getting to animate, were difficult to understand, but luckily I had a star student: Bruce, the math teacher at the high school, who was able to explain those concepts in the local language of Shona to the other teachers one on one when they got stuck. 

Seeing the teachers all help each other and get so determined to finish each exercise before quitting for the day was amazing. I quickly made the decision that we (the SYSTEM Coalition volunteers) were not going to host any of the workshops at all – we would be there as backup support, but I felt that the teachers were ready to host them on their own! After all, they were going to have to once we left. We prepared the teachers, having them practice giving lectures, and invited the highest grade level to come join us. This 4 hour workshop turned into just 2.5 hours as the kids grasped the concepts so quickly – flying through CS academy and making their robots turn round and round and light up colors. Afterwards, I learned how dedicated the teachers were as one of them told me the other’s wife was at the hospital for labor! I quickly rushed him off, offered him a ride to the airport, and left Zimbabwe knowing that the students were in good hands. 

Up next: supporting the team from afar! We’ve received baby pictures, but September 1st starts the new school year and we are so excited to see what the year brings with this in their curriculum! We are keeping in touch heavily to support them over the year via WhatsApp and hope to be back soon. 

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