Inspiring a generation of technology enthusiasts!

by Scheherazade Goertzel

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I’ve been living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the past three months, during which time I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at iCog-Labs’ office and observe what type of work they are doing. Yesterday I visited iCog-Labs’ first Anyone-Can-Code (ACC) lesson, where iCog staff began to teach simple coding to selected High School girls.

STEM classes offered at schools in Ethiopia are often lacking in a practical aspect of actually applying the theory that is taught. They often focus on mostly theory instead of on the implementation which would help them reach the same level of STEM understanding that high school and university student of many other countries have. This is due to a lack of resources and lack of fully trained professionals to teach the subjects. Robotics classes, for example, are generally taught without any actual robots or any sort of hardware for students to work and learn with.

My colleague, Betelhem Dessie, started collaborating with iCog Labs four months ago, an it is through this collaboration that ACC was born. Betelhem has been coding since she was ten years old, she says, “I learned informally because I wasn’t able to get classes in coding where I was raised in Harar. But after I came to Addis Ababa I got a lot of opportunities to learn from professionals because I was able to meet the late prime minister which gave me a chance to go to a government agency which was specializing in these kinds of technologies … Then I started working on real business and government projects for clients. While doing these I decided I should also focus on the training aspect because not many people have had the opportunity to get access to what I have, and that’s why we don’t see many Ethiopians, especially female, engaged in these kinds of activities.”

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One year ago Betelhem started working with the US embassy for the Girls Can Code project. For that project, 40 girls were trained and were able to create their own projects to help their communities. When Betelhem learned about iCog-Labs, her and Getnet, CEO of iCog-Labs, discovered that they shared a similar passion for teaching robotics, AI, basic sciences, and coding to Ethiopians. It was then that they were able to draft out a plan on how to teach high schoolers, and that’s how ACC was started.

During these first two days of ACC, the participants got introduced to Scratch software, and learned how to use it to control small, Robosapien, robots.They also learned how to gamify the lessons that they were taught through and science and math.DSC_5298

We questioned some of the girls who participated after the first weekend of training and it seems to have had a more significant impact on them than I’d predicted. Most of them found that it was easier than they’d expected. They’d expected for it to be very difficult and complicated — too much so for them to want to continue with it after the ACC workshop. But one girl even said that after these two days she had decided to change her major to electrical engineering. The training will continue for another 9 consecutive weeks in different public schools. In the future I hope that ACC will be able to reach its goal and spread to all schools throughout Ethiopia, so that Ethiopian students will be just as, or more, advanced in STEM education as other countries. _DSC5377

Ethiopian Herlad Interview | Sunday, August 12 – 2016

Here is the interview I had with the Ethiopian Herald

It was some four years ago that I heard the story of Information Technology (IT) genius Ethiopian kid. My music teacher at then Kotebe College of Teacher Education (now Kotebe University College), once told us that the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed from the age of five. What a rare talent! Anyone may wish to meet such a high caliber person. Bethelihem also well understood the codes that run our personal computers before hitting the age of ten. She owned at least seven patents at the age of seventeen now. Most amazingly, the software she has produced are not for simple game purposes. She carefully researched on gaps, institutional gaps … and come up with cost efficient and local remedies. Her understanding of the gaps in itself is surprising and yet inspiring when compared to her young age. No doubt, this rare talent would be so important for prancing economies like ours. The Ethiopian Herald, therefore, approached her to bring the story of Bethelihem to its esteemed readers.

Herald: Tell us a bit about your childhood in Harar?

Bethelihem: Harar is a very special place for me because the people are so kind, they also have amazing skills of communication. You are not misunderstood or judged simply by your dressing styles in Harar. There are also good education opportunities though not as abundant as it is in Addis Ababa. Let me mention two things I benefited from Harar; the first is I used to get good results in academics.The second is an enabling commercial environment. Now let me relate the duo. My father engaged himself in business while he was in Harar. And he bought a computer. And that computer paved the road for me to take the first steps of my future journey. The coincidence is that I had to celebrate my ninth birthday. And I asked my father to give me money to buy birthday stuffs. My father who was really busy doing business had, however, rejected my request. That day, I had sat down and planned to do business using that computer. It was a simple business idea but drew enough money for me. When people came to my father's shop to buy mobile phones, I put copy of a collection of music on their memory cards charging them little fee. I have now learned that doing such business is illegal. Anyway I made more than 1000 birr in one day. It was pretty enough to buy cake, clothes and the likes for mybirthday party. And day by day I updated my knowledge and skills of about how to do with computer. It was, however, tough to get people who can well usher me along the journey. Fortunately, I got few teachers and they gave me reference books. I read the books and carry on moving along the track.

Herald: Could you also tell us about you family?

Bethelihem: I live with my father and mother here in Addis Ababa. As Addis is good to learn and work, my parents and I have moved to Addis. I have one younger brother. He is eight grader and so interested in computer. My parents are a good pillar of strength for me. Where ever and when ever I plan to deal with people or organizations, I am accompanied by my father. He does care a lot about me. My mom is a very nice one. She always tells me to be confident, how to be a good girl and how to socialize myself. I can say that she has laid a steady foundation for the Betty today. I have never missed a big hand from my family when I start to do something which looks like difficult for kids. They do not bother me saying “kids can't do this or that”. They help me and proud of me. That is a great catalytic factor which accelerate me for a more and more innovation.

Herald: So what was the next step you engaged in?

Bethelihem: Gradually, I started video-editing, computer maintenance and installing cellphone software. Then my carrier informally grew into a computer teacher. I used to teach computer in Harar
though I was a kid by then.

Herald: What was the reaction of your peers, as you pranced to professional job when you had to play with them?

Bethelihem: My peers had not been that excited with what I was doing. And I tried to arouse their curiosity by showing them how the internet is exciting and important. And more peers used to come and ask me to show them how to use computers. Actually their having less attention to computer was not their problem. The technological equipment available in every house by then was TV satellite dishes. I was among the few who uses computers. In the meantime, the community appreciated me and my works, many people said that “she a smart kid, a genius kid…” But, that is not the case. It is a matter of getting the real opportunities. And the reality is, I believe, I got the right opportunity.

Herald: Apart from getting right opportunity, what are the ingredients of your current achievement?

Bethelihem: Yea…opportunity could be one as I already said it. But, it needs to be coupled with hardwork. I am always ready to learn, and update my knowledge and skills. In addition, I concluded that coding and computer programming is my real interest. As you know everybody has their own interests.Yours might be journalism. So, it is like enjoyment for me.

Herald: One needs to pass through a rigorous education to be an IT expert. What is your experience
in this regard?

Bethlihem: I had some training on how to work in Microsoft Office, otherwise you can say it that I am a self-taught programmer.

Herald: But it is not enough to be programmer? Is it?

Bethlihem: Indeed, it is not. What I did was approaching people who have good expertise on the area
and asking questions on matters which appears unclear to me. I have also got good help online, it is a good mechanism. I was also at Information Security Agency (INSA). And I had a trainer for two
years. That is also another addition into my knowledge and skills.

Herald: Classrooms are inclusive here. Pupils with varieties of learning styles sit together in a
classroom , so do you get the right care from teachers?

Bethelihem: Yes I do. And I like the school environment. Classrooms are mosaic of different culture.
You learn not only from classroom instructions but also from interacting with peers. We have ample
time to share experiences. And I wasn't got bored. Frankly speaking, the school I was enrolled also considered my learning ability. And I also enjoyed double promotion from grade four to five. I have already taken grade 12 national examination this year. And I like the classroom environment.

Herald: Could you tell us how did come to public eye?

Bethelihem: First I met Ato Adisu Legesse during the celebration of nations and nationalities day in
Harar. I also got the opportunity to meet the late prime minister Meles Zenawi. After that Ethiopian
Television and Radio Agency (now Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation) approached me for an interview. So, this was a good breakthrough for me. And it was also important promotion, I can say.Previously, when I go to private and government offices, they gazed at me. They were suspicious about my works. The TV programme, nevertheless, have placed good information about me and my works in the long term memory of many people. Nowadays, people easily identify me when I go to their offices.

Herald: So…what are the things you have accomplished so far, also if there are projects in progress?

Bethelihem: I am now focusing on five projects at current. The first one is Anyone can Code project
which I am working on it in collaboration with iCog Labs. We are planning to teach high school
students every week about Robotics and coding. And the plan is to reach around 12 high schools in
three months time.

The second one is FEDENA it is an open source school enterprise resource planning software. It is to enable students to check their results, it also helps to administer school environment— such as human resource and finance. You can manage everything you want using the software. And we customize this open source to the demands of our customers. I have implemented this for Yeha Science and Technology College, Gage College and Queens College.

The third one is a digital library. This is so different from Encarta and the likes. Because, it is localized.You can get instructional books from grade nine to twelve. And it is designed in line with the Ethiopian school curriculum. In addition it is offline digital library, therefore, students can use it without incurring cost.

The forth one is virtual lab. You know it is difficult to use chemicals at schools labs. One has to becautious regarding safety issues in one hand and chemicals are also costly on the other. This
virtual lab simulates the process you engage in real labs. You can drug chemicals and add into another chemicals to observe the chemical reactions they go through, this has been implemented
in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Center in Bahir Dar.

The last one is the Document Management System. It let you manage your documents and I have
implemented it for Auditor General Bureau In Amhara region.

Herald: Can we also discuss the patents you obtained?

I have obtained seven patents. Four of them are privately owned and the remaining three are in
collaboration with other organizations. I was one of the ice-breakers to get patent on software in
Ethiopia.

Herald: Women and girls are highly encouraged nowadays in many respects. But it is also a work in
progress. Do you face challenges because you are female and/or a kid?

Bethelihem: Honestly speaking I faced no challenges as a result of the former. But, I faced challenges on resulting from the latter. Some people get in doubt comparing my proposals on IT issues and my age. There are times which were hard for me to access people and/or organizations. But nowadays my family are doing that for me.

Herald: What do you advice for kids?

The first thing I need to advice is that they need to explore what is around them, there could be
opportunities revolving, so it is good to seize these opportunities. I know that watching movies and
busying oneself in such activities are good. But, our future foundation need to be set while we are kid.We need not to waste our priceless time, we need to figure out our future now. For instance, kids can involve in volunteer activities [as it is widely practiced nowadays in many places in Ethiopia,particularly during Kirmet season] even we can generate money engaging in various small business activates.

Herald: We wish you success in your entire life!

Bethelihem: Thanks a lot!

Girls Can Code!

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This week has been one of the most memorable. I have graduated from high school and and also my girls graduated from a 9 month long coding training.

What is the 9 month long training? Well, there is a project called ‘Girls Can Code’ or GCC in short, it is an initiative by the US Embassy to empower and inspire young girls to increase their performance and  pursue  STEM education. The project included 40 girls from public and governmental schools in Addis Ababa.

I had a chance to be a trainer/mentor for these girls. We have thought them basic computer skills, the usage of different software, introduction to the internet, web & app development. And there final projects have shown as the 9 month long training has helped them be equipped with the essential coding and computer skills.

The projects done by the students by the help of their mentors were interesting. The groups were the Sabawiyan, Nubiwian, Etege & Abyssinia. There names themselves signify the importance they have given to their country, culture and community.

The Sabawiyan’s project which I had the opportunity to mentor prepared a site where students can practice the previous National examinations like SAT prep sites would do. It makes previous exams available for students so that they can access it anywhere, anytime.

The Nubiwian’s project called ‘FANO’ which gives field tips for students based on the answers you give from the questions provided. From the answers the user is given options on which field of learning they should consider while entering universities.

The Etegians made a social networking site which you can change assigned universities with others. Here in Ethiopia you are assigned in a field or university based on your results from the national university leaving examination. But still you can change universities with another person’s assigned university if they are interested. So instead of posting advertisements here and there people can get online and exchange infos about where you want to go.

And lastly the Abyssinian’s have developed their project on the tourism sector. Afrotours helps tourist connect with licensed guiders and also freelancers found in the area with all necessary information provided.

This GCC project was a pilot  and it will continue to expand to Bahir Dar, Dire Dawa, Jimma, Mekelle and Addis Ababa in the next academic year. The girls have came from a background with no computer training or any clue about coding yet now they can develop their own applications. Girls you have made me proud and I hope your efforts inspire others too.I would  love to thank my awesome colleges and Emnetye for making this a success  also thanks to the Second Lady of the United States, Dr Biden for making out graduation ceremony memorable. You can check out the broadcast of EBC https://youtu.be/C8Pnob_nVsU

#GCC #girlpower #letgirlslearn