ASHA NGO in Chennai, in collaboration with Amazon’s Future Engineers Programme, is helping children across the city’s government schools learn the ropes of robotics, computers, and more.
This article is sponsored by Amazon India
In a government school in Ramanjeri on the outskirts of Chennai, teacher Sitaezhularasi’s classes are a riot of fun. Here, computer science and technology take on a whole new meaning as children learn coding through ‘cup games’ and grids drawn on the floor with chalk. Each of these cups represent a ‘command’ and kids use these cups in a sequence to make a ‘program’ while learning the basics of computer science like sequencing , algorithms, and loops.
After engaging in these ‘unplugged’ activities, students put their skills to the real test on computers and laptops provided by Amazon.
“The children love these activities as we make them interesting,” says their teacher.
Sitaezhularasi’s role as a computer teacher associated with ASHA Chennai, an NGO that works to educate underprivileged children, has been inspiring.
The computer skills she imparts to these children have helped embolden students in thinking logically and becoming adept with creating technology and not just consuming it. As she watches her class become maestros in software such as Blockly and Scratch, it gives Sitaezhularasi a sense of pride.
While ASHA Chennai has been supporting government schools in the city since 2004 by way of sending teachers to rural areas, in 2015, they decided to bring in a change.
Students need to be equipped with technological tools that would stand them in good stead in the time to come. And so, the NGO began sending them computer teachers.
And the results were truly remarkable.
Future Engineer Programme
“Children began to excel in computers even though they were weak in other subjects,” notes Sitaezhularasi.
In 2022, Amazon’s Future Engineer programme stepped in to help the NGO scale to an additional 100 schools. This was done by helping them hire teachers and providing equipment like laptops that teachers could use in their classes. Amazon also offered numerous Class Chats in these schools through which Amazon employees connect with students and share their journey to demystify careers in the technology industry for students. This further augmented the quality of teaching. To further the program beyond these 100 schools, Amazon and ASHA will also offer exploratory computer science lessons to an additional 150 schools and 90,000 students.
As Rajaraman, a volunteer at ASHA Chennai and coordinator of the programme explains, the partnership with Amazon has been “exemplary”.
The educator is among several senior professionals who are associated with the Chennai chapter of the NGO. Rajaraman recounts the time he has spent volunteering here as “wonderful”.
“Before joining Asha Chennai in 2002, I was associated with the chapter in North Carolina, where I was working,” he says, adding that he resonates with the NGO’s goal of providing basic education to the underprivileged.
“There’s also a lot of freedom that each chapter of the NGO is given, to take an approach that they deem fit. Today, this is important, as education is critical for change to be brought about in society. It is as basic a need as food, water and a roof to live under.”
He says that they would earlier send computer teachers to schools in the rural areas of Tamil Nadu including Tiruvallur, Tirunelveli and Chennai Kanchipuram, but the numbers have since grown. “The teacher visits the school one day in the week and slowly the frequency increases. During this time, the curriculum is designed in a way that addresses different aspects of computer literacy.”
Elaborating on this, Rajaraman says for classes 1 and 2, the curriculum is aimed at familiarising them with the keyboard, mouse, and other parts of the hardware. “We then move on to simple games wherein they get comfortable with these features. As we move to higher levels, the complexity increases. Students are taught paint tools, equivalents of Powerpoint, Excel and Word applications.”
Whichever the level may be, the focus lies on a practical approach. One term is dedicated to a project wherein students are assessed on the basis of what they deliver. “During this time, students are expected to come up with a sophisticated, complex presentation using the skills they have learnt,” he adds.
When the students are not practising, they are engaging in unplugged activities.
“These include grid games played on the floor, or Robo games, wherein students alternate between playing the role of a robot and human and thus revise the codes they have learnt,” says Rajaraman.
These activities are meant to spark the children’s imagination and curiosity towards tech-based learning even without technology, for instance when the school sees frequent power cuts.
Rajaraman notes that the programme has indeed instilled a sense of confidence in the young minds of Chennai’s rural schools. “I have seen a shift in their attitude towards computers and tech,” he adds. “Many of the kids who come to these schools do not have an opportunity to handle computers both, at the home or outside of it. So, when our teachers introduce them to these devices, it is their only opportunity.”
Recounting his own experiences with the children, he says, “In contrast to earlier, now when I visit these schools and shoot questions like ‘What’s the memory of the computer?’, ‘Where is the hard drive and what is its role?’, they figure out the answer themselves.”
Such is the talent that the children demonstrate that as he walks into the classrooms, Rajaraman is left inspired. “Ask them what they want to grow up to be, and pat comes the reply — a computer teacher, an engineer…”
“With Amazon Future Engineer, ASHA is now part of a strong collective of organisations dedicated to supporting computer science education for students who do not traditionally get access. In the past year of this association, we have gained a lot through constant engagement with this cohort and have built a scalable approach to our intervention” Rajaraman adds.
Through the efforts of the programme and the NGO’s support, the children of Chennai are seeing a new wave in teaching methods, and Rajaraman says it is the start of a better tomorrow.