by Scheherazade Goertzel
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.”
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.
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.