Two programming apps that don’t require computers played a key role in bringing the world of coding to 11 500 learners across Nelson Mandela Bay in October.
The month-long initiative was the result of a partnership between Nelson Mandela University’s department of computing sciences, the Nelson Mandela Bay Science and Technology Centre, and digital solutions firm S4 Integration, which teamed up to offer free coding workshops to learners, most of them from under-resourced schools.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime for some of our kids … allowing them to explore a world of programming and the creative use of technology,” said Charles Duna Primary School teacher Jarren Ganhiah.
Twenty-four facilitators used three different programming tools to teach coding to kids: Scratch, a computer-based programming language developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, and two apps called Tanks and Boats, which were developed in Port Elizabeth, and which don’t require computers. Learners could go to the Science and Technology Centre for the workshops, but the facilitators also visited 60 schools to provide basic training.
“Instilling a passion for technology from a young age is what can propel our country so much further,” said S4 Integration development services manager Nico Claassen. “Through the Tanks initiative, we have seen tangible results and can attest the work is [having] a lasting impact.”
Tanks was developed in 2017 by Nelson Mandela University honours student Byron Batteson, who wanted to find a solution to address the shortage of software developers in South Africa.
Batteson’s lecturer, Professor Jean Greyling, helped to make Batteson’s vision a reality, by commercialising and rolling out Tanks. “There are 25 000 schools in South Africa and 16 000 of them don’t have access to computer labs. We want to get to those kids,” said Greyling, who won the university’s Innovation Excellence Award this year, and was also one of the top 10 winners in the SAB Foundation’s Social Innovation Awards, netting a R400 000 award for Tanks.
Tanks essentially takes the form of a puzzle. Working in groups, learners piece together commands on puzzle pieces to move an army tank through a maze and to shoot at obstacles. When learners have completed the puzzle, they photograph it with a cellphone, and a mobile app translates it into coding. They can then progress to a more difficult level.
The other app, Boats, created by local software development company Avocado Chocolate, follows a similar concept, except learners must manoeuvre a boat through obstacles in the ocean to pick up pollution.
“Tanks and Boats allowed the facilitators to visit numerous schools that do not have computer labs,” said Greyling. Tanks was originally developed for children aged eight to 12 and Boats for younger learners, but Greyling has used them successfully with all ages.
“These games are extremely relevant in this country, in the context of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s drive to promote coding and robotics in schools,” he said.
Tanks has also attracted international interest, with Greyling having been invited to Unesco’s Mobile Learning Week in Paris in March. That same month, it was the runner-up in the Technology Innovation category at Africa Tech Week.
Academics and teachers in Oldenburg, Germany are piloting Tanks in several schools, and it has also attracted the interest of several African countries.
“There are other coding games that have been developed and introduced in Africa by massive multinationals, but you need computer labs. What I’m saying is that we can do this without labs,” said Greyling.
Over the past two years, Greyling has trained facilitators in every province to present Tanks workshops at schools — and has also trained unemployed youth to run “coding clubs” in townships, to expose even more learners to coding while generating a small income for themselves.
“For me, this is more than just a game. It has the potential to change people’s lives,” said Greyling.