Geeks unite

2017-03-26 06:01
Youngsters who attend the sessions learn new things every weekend.

Youngsters who attend the sessions learn new things every weekend.

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The Africa Teen Geeks programme, which offers free coding classes, has instilled a passion for computer science in scores of children.

On a Saturday morning, when most children are sleeping late or enjoying not having to go to school, groups of young “geeks” are rising with the sparrows and trekking to Unisa’s computer labs to learn computer coding.

And they certainly don’t fit the stereotypical nerd mould – spirited boys and girls as young as five are navigating their way around colourful coding games, as are trendy teens who get a kick out of developing their own interactive games, animations and apps.

Unisa’s slick and modern Florida campus on Johannesburg’s West Rand is a place where Africa Teen Geeks, a nongovernmental organisation that is trying to instil a passion for computer science in young people, is offering free computer science classes.

When we visit, not one of the dozens of PCs sits unoccupied. Children of all ages are learning different stages of coding – and clearly having heaps of fun while they’re at it.

Facilitator Shonisani Nevondo has been volunteering at the lab since September. She has some information technology experience, and jumped at the chance when Africa Teen Geeks chief executive officer Lindiwe Matlali asked her to help out.

“On any given Saturday, we see about 54 kids here – some from Bram Fischerville, Cosmo City and all over Soweto,” she says. “They’ve heard about it via social media, Facebook or through their schools. Some start not knowing anything about computers and are learning from scratch.”

A favourite activity is learning how to program animals and other Minecraft creatures, or to go on virtual adventures during the free Hour of Code tutorials available on code.org, which can also be downloaded and used offline.

The teens then go on to learn the more advanced Java programming system.

“When they start, some do it for fun and have no idea that they’re doing computer science,” Nevondo says, “but they enjoy it so much that they want to do IT or coding at school. At the very least, they learn computer skills and can add that to their CVs.”

“Haven’t used a computer in my life before”

Kgothatso Molate, 19, from Forte Secondary School in Soweto is one such bright spark. He started attending classes in June, having heard about the programme through Child Welfare.

“I didn’t expect to do be doing coding,” he says. “I thought it would be more IT. But I’ve learnt I can do a lot of things, such as create apps, cartoons and games.”

He’s already designed a Tetra watch app using holograms, and has compiled a game called Soweto Theft, where players can choose a car, select a character, learn to navigate Soweto and communicate with residents, and then “get the bad guys”.

Now he and other teens in the group are learning Java, one of the world’s leading programming languages.

Does he mind giving up his Saturday mornings to code? “No,” he laughs, “I don’t mind.”

Abraham Tsiri , 17, from Cosmo City Secondary School in Roodepoort is a relative newcomer to the programme, but “already I’ve learnt a lot of things – I might even consider it as a career”.

Tsiri is fortunate to have access to a computer at home, but many of the children in the class, such as a 14-year-old we spoke to from Mapetla High School in Soweto, “haven’t used a computer in my life before”.

She hasn’t let that deter her, however, saying she’s a fast learner and has progressed rapidly since starting in December.

“It teaches you to think out of the box,” says this conscientious young “girl geek”.

“As it is, our chances of employment are not good, and tech makes it easier. Since computers are new to me, I think I might do computer science when I grow up – it’s inspired me to do something along this line.”

"A great opportunity"

A go-getting 10-year-old, who is one of the many Soweto children shuttled through to Florida each week by “geek angel” Nthabi Sekhobela, recently lost her beloved granny and says she wants to help her unemployed mum by becoming a doctor or nurse one day.

“I love the games,” she says. “Sometimes they’re hard, but then I ask people how to do them and I understand. I enjoy it very much.”

Her sentiments are echoed by eight-year-old Frances Cullinan, who visited the class recently with her mother and is now getting hooked on basic coding. “It was the first time I did it and it was very fun for me,” she says.

“Now I’m playing these kinds of games at home, moving [characters] west, east, south and north, and learning how to move forward and so on. It’s kind of irritating when I get it wrong, but it just makes me try harder! I think I would like to keep on doing it.”

An unemployed 24-year-old who is attending the Saturday classes says: “I’m enjoying the whole thing as it makes me think critically. I enjoy new adventures and this is a great opportunity to get a better understanding of computers, and learn how programs are built.” She hopes it will boost her chances of finding a job.

Two 17-year-old pupils from Pace Commercial Secondary School in Jabulani, looking dapper in their school uniforms, were selected for the classes through their school because of their fascination with computers.

They are already fairly computer literate and tech savvy, but are looking to go to the next level, realising that the modern workplace is increasingly looking for “smart” skills that go beyond data capturing and word processing. After their first class, they’re champing at the bit to go beyond games to “code cracking”.

“Through games, you get to learn how to analyse a situation first and get to the finish line – they are skills we need in our daily lives,” says one of the pupils.

His friend adds: “As you progress, it gets harder and more complex. The aim is to find solutions to problems, and gain more skills to solve those problems.”

Initiatives such as this one help not only township youngsters get a head start in life, but also people such as Nevondo, the facilitator.

“What I enjoy most is working with kids, but I’m also learning and practising Java. I’d like to do programming one day.”

In partnership with Africa Teen Geeks

Read more on:    johannesburg  |  education  |  technology

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