Coding for Success

Chaos

As technopreneurs, we are quite used to living life on the edge and improv… Until we met the kids of CATCH Plus. Energetic. Loud. Rowdy. Tell-it-like-it-is. The CHILDREN AND TEENS COMMUNITY HUB PLUS (CATCH Plus) is a holistic activities programme for children from low-income families in Jalan Kukoh, under the Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng Constituency. At this multi-coloured estate with a “hanging” basketball court and wide, open space, it is not uncommon to find families averaging 5 and above in size cramped together in 1-2 room units of 26-45 sqm.

As parents toil over long work days, children often go unsupervised. The adult drama would often roll over into children’s lives as relationships soured, fights took place, employment statuses changed… As chaos emerged as a persistent theme in these children’s lives, it is unsurprising that plans are unheard of. In fact, many are pushed into rental housing due to “deteriorating family ties – divorce, abandonment or strained relationships” and stairwells lurking with drunks, drug abusers and loan sharks.

The challenge posed to us is then: How do we systematically, sustainably encourage these children to create with technology? How can we help them chart a better course forward, within constraints and given the particular challenges of their situation?

 

Scarcity

Just a 5-minute walk from Chinatown MRT, and “a few hundred metres away from the hustle and bustle along Singapore River and a street across high-end condominiums at Robertson Quay”, Jalan Kukoh has been called the “slum of Singapore” and is one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Singapore. People lead intensely claustrophobic lives due to big family sizes and may eat as little as a meal, or none, through the day.

Such scarcity wields a powerful influence over behaviour. When resources are scarce, people are more predisposed to compete than to cooperate; when there is little social contact between neighbours, people are more predisposed to be aloof than to adopt prosocial behaviours. This is a phenomenon that has been well-studied by Mullainathan (Robert C. Waggoner Professor of Economics at Harvard University) and Eldar Shafir (Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton) in the book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013)”, presenting years of findings from the fields of psychology and economics and empirical research of their own:

That’s a phenomenon well-documented by psychologists: if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills—attention, self-control, and long-term planning—often suffer. Like a computer running multiple programs, Mullainathan and Shafir explain, our mental processors begin to slow down. We don’t lose any inherent capacities, just the ability to access the full complement ordinarily available for use.

But what’s most striking—and in some circles, controversial—about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behaviour, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may, in fact, be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind. (Source: http://harvardmagazine.com/2015/05/the-science-of-scarcity)

 

Fear

In this context, it is hardly surprising that there is an underlying current of pervasive fear. Fear of betrayal, fear of trying, fear of being ridiculed or laughed at. While most children may have parents, teachers and other adults pushing them on, urging them to keep trying if not telling them that they are the centre of the world, kids growing up in disadvantaged families enjoy no such cushion. Lack of supervision often means that they have to learn to take care of themselves and younger siblings from a young age, all while trying to grasp academic work that can oftentimes feel far-removed from their daily experiences.

This fear holds people back, and they dare not tread on to newer grounds that may provide more fertile pastures for their talents. In practical terms, this means that our coding classes are not just about technicalities and the mechanics of making an app, but getting these children to believe in their abilities to create as well. And why might coding classes for children from disadvantaged families be necessary rather than a luxury you ask?

 

Why Coding?

Research from OECD “found that richer teenagers were more likely to use the internet to search for information or to read news rather than to chat or play video games.” Computing costs have never been cheaper and information has never been more accessible, the critical bottleneck when it comes to unleashing digital opportunities for growth and innovation has been the missing analogue foundation of education and awareness.

In an age of fermenting populist fury at digital disruptions and widening inequality, the way forward cannot be a retreat to tribal enclaves but to forge a more inclusive globalisation and to enhance access to opportunities – and coding is a critical pillar of that since the ability to communicate with machines is the new literacy that is richly rewarded in our Information Age.

Technology, or rather the lack of effective use of it, is a source of much inequality. Without proper guidance, kids fall prey to games and entertainment when they could be making their own games instead. Hence, learning to code holds the key to closing up the gap of the digital divide.

 

Piloting Catch Plus Geeks

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A generous donation by Facebook and an introductory session on making virtual pets using Scratch for about 15 children later, we are ready to roll forward to more differentiated and smaller classes to cater to the children’s different interests.

Following this, primary school and secondary school children would have separate sessions from 3-4.30pm and 4.30-6pm on September 5,7 and 9 as we equip them with basics in Scratch and MIT App Inventor respectively. This would be done using a mix of unplugged activities, bomb defusal game (Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes) and guided tutorials so that these children build confidence in their own computational skills and gain basic proficiency in finding their own answers from the internet at the same time.

The sessions do not always run smoothly, of course – but we had our eyes on pushing the students toward the creation of mid-way showcase projects to further bolster their interests. To give every child the extra helping hand that they need, we enlisted the help of a team of NUS students.

 

Connecting Communities

These 20+ NUS students are part of an overseas community expedition group that is meant to deliver technology resources and programmes in a rural village in Guizhou at the end of the year. On September 15, they were brief about the children of CATCH Plus and had a crash course on Scratch before we deploy them to help tutor these kids one-to-one.

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Sep 15: NUS students were trained on how to use Scratch and engage CATCH Plus kids

11 of them volunteered on September 19 from 3-6pm, games were played and preparations were made to turn the children’s crazy ideas into projects for presentation on Children’s Day.

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The kids shared their ideas ranging from underwater worlds to witches in forests and get to work. Once everyone was done, we set off for games in the “hanging” open area.

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Sep 19: 11 NUS volunteers conducted games and tutored kids on Scratch, in preparation for their Children’s Day celebration

 

1 last tutorial session was held on 23 September (Friday) from 4.30-7.30pm and we are all ready for Children’s Day celebration on 7 October from 3pm-7pm!

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Laptops were lined up and all children were able to view and cast votes on their favourite project while neighbourhood boys busied themselves with setting up a Computer Science unplugged A-Maze-ing Coders activity.

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We saw the boys demonstrate remarkable spatial awareness and division of labour as they prepared the grounds for our activity. In the A-Maze-ing Coders activity, kids “programmed” their friends to navigate the maze with a standard set of commands that have to be executed in sequence; the difficulty level was turned up a notch with blindfolds as well to keep them challenged.

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The timekeeping team consists of centre staff Yu Chan, volunteers Alyson and Gracie and Ernie who basically made sure that the kids executed the commands correctly.

At the end of the day, children walked away with prizes, new gifts and plenty of fun!

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With so much going on in their lives, learning to code and experiment with computers is a safe space for these children to iterate and learn together. Such an interactive STEM experience that is very hands-on has the added advantage of providing an effective mean for engaging these children in learning too.

Moving forward, we expect the engagement with the children of Jalan Kukoh to continue through regular classes culminating in a hackathon and/or employment options at some point. Stay tuned! Please write to us at [email protected]or.asia if you are interested in working with us on this initiative.

Researched and edited by Ernie.