Saturday, 15 October 2016

Holiday Robotics Training

In early September 2016, I got another opportunity to mentor a group of young people from Gulu in Mobile application development during the Holiday Robotics Training organized by Oysters & Pearls - Uganda at their Gulu town premises. Running for two weeks, this training covered areas like Video Game Design, Robotics and Electronics, Minecraft and Mobile Applications Development. Unlike the January camp, this training was not residential and participants attended from Monday to Saturday between 8AM to 5PM. 

A day before the official start of the training, mentors made preparations and arranged the different equipment to be used. It had been 7 months since I was last in Gulu and I couldn’t help but notice in awe the progress Oysters and Pearls had made in regards to their Maker Space - all thanks to Sandra Washburn for her love, dedication and motivation in equipping tech-savvy young people with technological skills to aid them become the change makers this nation needs.

The Maker Space is perfectly set up with all the requirements that anyone with a dream of changing the world using technology would need through their journey. I am talking about mentors, passionate people who will guide and help you whenever you need them. A bookshelf with technology books that range from technology magazines, beginner programming books for any programming language as far as books with trail projects and developing a world changing product. With different practical games that teach basic things like circuits, sensors, electronics among others. With this setup, someone could literally go with only the heart and brains to learn how to and develop a life changing project. “...why dream of going to Silicon Valley to change the world when I have a Silicon Valley in the making in my home town”.

To any student, a normal holiday means getting a lot of sleep, resting from books and watching lots of TV. For this three weeks holiday, students from different schools around Gulu town turned up for the training on a Wednesday with excitement and willingness to learn and discover. I personally think that for them to sacrifice their time and whatever fun they could have had, had they stayed home and instead chose to attend this training was really priceless. These holiday trainings often have an average of 15 students apart from the January Annual Camp, which attracts way more participants from all over the country. Numbers seem to keep going up with each edition of the program as there seems to be a kind of natural mechanism aiding this. For instance, when one participant brings along a friend, the new friend in turn often brings another to the next program. By the next holiday training, the number of participants multiplies. We could easily say that in the next two years for each two short holidays, over 120 students will be participating in these programs.

Moving on, or rather back to the topic, the first day opened with the introduction of the instructors. Instructors included Denis Obote Robotics instructor , Jacob Odur Electronics instructor, Andrew Mukalu Game Design instructor, Smith Minecraft instructor , Adeline Tushabe Game Design instructor and myself, Nassuna Phyllis Mobile App Development instructor. Participants were briefed on the four classes which were to run concurrently. Understandably, they had a hard time choosing which class to attend because they could only attend one class due to the limited time to cover everything during the training.

The students’ interest to learn often inspires their instructor to keep doing what they do. There is always a first time for everything and this is the best time to pick interest because it’s what pushes one to learn more and makes them more curious even when things seem to be very difficult. For most of the students in the training, it was their first time to be introduced to mobile application development. You could tell they were excited about learning to develop their own applications as all they could talk about was developing their own games on the phone.

At the end of the training, students presented work they did ranging from transaction and educational mobile applications, video games, robotics projects and creative Minecraft building among others. This also gave them an opportunity to horn their presentation and communication skills as for most students, this was their first time presenting to people.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Significance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in Uganda’s education system.

Uganda’s worst nightmares like poverty and unemployment have been normally traced back to the poor education system of the country over the past years. The education system being more theoretical than practical and occasional reference to real life experiences and scenarios. Solutions have been pointed out and adopted, yet the problem still exists.   
In 2005, the Ugandan government made science subjects compulsory to all secondary school students. The move was aimed at producing more practical professionals that would transform Uganda from a developing to a middle income country through technological and scientific innovations.
The performance of core sciences at O’Level is very poor for example the majority of students who sat for the UNEB examinations between 2005– 2008 scored failures in the core sciences with physics being the worst performed. Only just two years ago in 2014, the UNEB board noted that the performance in science and Math was worrying and it’s because of the way students view sciences. Students view science as having a high memorization emphasis and less problem solving.
This can be attributed to the lack of practical experienced science teachers, poor science infrastructure, the largely theoretical teaching and learning methods. To some extent, stereotypes such as “sciences are a preserve of the male students”, “girls aren’t good at math”, if not addressed, more theoretical and half-baked technical professionals will be produced.
lego.jpgSpicing the education system up with Technology and Engineering will provide a more practical approach to science and math theoretical knowledge.Some primary schools have now incorporated technology in their teaching programs even though there are limited teachers  and even lesser equipment to train the children with. The existence of different STEM education programs across the country and all over the world that are targeted towards creating more problem solvers and more technical professionals is proof that there are/groups of people taking measures to make a change in the education system of the country.
The country’s education system should adapt STEM programs as early as primary school to eliminate production of job seekers but rather produce more job creators. curiostiy.jpgCuriosity, imagination and eagerness to learn is high among children from age 4 to 11. With the exposure of STEM activities that are crucial in most of the math, science and other education theories/topics in a fun and practical way, we shall have people taking education and science for problem solving and making the country a better place, with their knowledge rather than for just passing exams and acquiring academic papers.
Over time, different people from different backgrounds have come up as volunteers to see this change in the system. Yet another team has set out to see that the children’s interests in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are captured as early as age 4. Taking into consideration activities that interest children in this age bracket, a new out of school program is being introduced as education support for the parents to their children and a concealed learning approach to the children.
The change we’re rooting for will happen in the near future if we all do or give the little we have to teach the young generation as they say, “Grandchildren are the dots that connect the lines from generation to generation”.

Please Fill the survey form below to give us your view about engaging Children into Science Technology Engineering and Math. Thank you.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

STEM - Introduction

I am Phyllis Nassuna Ntananga, a 22 old final year student of the Bachelor of Information Technology program at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Mbarara. I have a keen interest in Computer Software Programming as well as an equally strong enthusiasm for Engineering and Robotics. For the bigger part of my time at this university, I have participated in several local and global computer technology-themed innovation challenges and competitions. I have as well as volunteered in as many ICT focused initiatives
More recently, I took part as a trainer in the Africa Code Week, a program organized by Google that was aimed at introducing primary school children to computer programming using a software called Scratch by volunteering students and ICT professionals. Personally, I discovered that this was a great experience for the school children at the two the schools we went to. These children showed so much excitement when we introduced the program that at the end of each 1-2 hour sessions, some of them would ask if they could get Scratch on their parents’ computers to continue developing these programs. Others asked if they would still access the software after we had left. I remember one particular pupil asking me if she can call me over the holidays to and go teach her from her home. This touched me so deeply and I thought of what would happen to all this inspiration, the excitement of discovering and learning more if these children never saw us again or if they didn’t get anyone to teach or take them through this program again.
In the same period, I got a chance to be one of the trainers at the Gulu Robotics Camp, organized by Oysters and Pearls Uganda to educate children in primary and secondary schools from different parts of Uganda about Computer Technology and Robotics in particular. With the children at the camp also asking me the same questions as the ones I had gone to teach in the first two schools, I decided to come up with an own program of teaching computer programming to school children in at least five schools, with colleagues that I had worked with in the very first events.
We volunteer to teach computer programming to school children in classes Primary Three to Primary Seven, using a platform called Scratch which is easy for the children to learn and has a lot of abilities that the learners can use to do several programs. We also plan to teach girl students in secondary schools so as to counter the gender imbalance in technology and encourage more female participation in STEM.
Scratch as a platform has very many features good for the school going children such as; maths, controls and animations among others that they will use to help improve their understanding of some concepts in class. We also have hardware with Scratch that we shall introduce the children. This hardware has features like light, sound, value variance and resistors that are fundamental in the field of Electronics.
We plan to make this program bigger and more impactful in our drive to change the nation through these young but brilliant minds by introducing them to Technology and Engineering. For the start, we have few equipment which we shall use to teach with. We hope to get voluntary support from the schools and other organizations to see that we get more equipment to use as the number of the students increases.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Journey to Innovation

When I reported to university for my first year, I knew what program I was going to do and I always answered the question “...which program are you planning on doing?” quite well. If by any chance anyone had asked me about the kinds of activities or skills my program contained, that would have been the end of me had it been an admission question. Strangely, in my Secondary Level I had hated computers and anything was concerned with them. Yet, here I was, going to do a Computer Science program. The first week involved Fresher Orientation and was really hard for me, having to  be in the computer lab and failing to even power on a computer.

Soon, all that changed. This was when I first heard of the Google Student Ambassador program at the MUST. Out of curiosity, I often wondered what it takes to be a Google Student Ambassador and this is what opened my eyes, my capabilities and most importantly, my love for technology. I really wanted to know what it would take me to become an ambassador, so I asked that year’s GSA what it had taken him and his colleague to become one and I got to know about programming in website development and mobile application development because skills and passion is all that is required in competitions and applications. I did not have a personal computer then but always tried to write some code whenever I borrowed a computer from a friend.

From that time I decided to go on and on without stopping. The day I got my own computer, I wanted to try out everything. I could not stop exploring. I joined the Google Developer Group where I met a lot of people with a lot of experience who had been in the field for long. In all the groups and the people I always talked to I learnt one thing, Computer Technology is not a hard thing to get if you have the interest to learn and the passion for what you do.

When you have that, then the journey can begin, it's a continuous process with exposure, learning, development, new terms and fun all through. I think technology should also be more about making the world a better place, not just having the skills. I got this in the first innovation challenge (Technovation) I was part of. These are events held to encourage technologists come up with technology solutions to problems that are faced by their communities in different sectors like education, health, industries, agriculture and the list is endless.

I do not regret signing up for the program I am offering because through it I have got to learn a lot of awesome stuff and interact with people from different fields. Also, through it, I have  got to realize my potential and how I can use the knowledge I have attained to create positive change around and even within me. I believe everyone should embrace technology regardless of their discipline because it cuts across and  it makes the world a fun and  really awesome place.
Ladies Lets Innovate!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Robotics Camp by Oysters & Pearls - Uganda

On a very hot Thursday in the first week of January 2016, I hopped on a bus headed for Gulu. I was super excited. It was my first time to go to the North. Naturally, I had all the imaginations anyone could have about an entirely new place. The journey was long but to my surprise I was awake the whole, thanks to the fear of missing out on the adventure. I saw different things like rare fruits that we barely have in the Central or Western region of the country. With sights of the Karuma Bridge, one of the many beautifully nature that God blessed Uganda with. Before sunset, we were in Gulu town for the Robotics Camp.

That evening, the trainers that had arrived for the camp all gathered to be taken through the materials and resources that were going to be used for the next two weeks in the camp. As a software developer without much knowledge in hardware/embedded systems, most of the terms and materials were so new to me - stuff like the PCDuino, Arduino, Breadboard, Linker Shield and so many other terms. However, I came to realize that engineering can be done by anyone no matter the background or experience one has in computing. All one needs is the willingness and love to learn.

Sunday evening, the Camp officially opened. Some of the students had arrived the previous day while others arrived on Sunday itself. As trainers, we’d spent Sunday afternoon organizing the rooms and setting all the materials up for the kick start of the Camp Sessions on Monday. It should be noted that students came from over 35 schools with some coming from other regions of the country and more were still arriving.

The classes lined up included the Blind Annex class which involved teaching computer skills like Microsoft Access, Excel, typing, beauty tips to the ladies and other programs, with the Robotics Foundation class, studying Introduction to Hardware using Scratch and the PCDuino, the Advanced Robotics class involved doing hardware and electronics using the PcDuino and Arduino. The third was the Video Game class where students learnt how to design and build/develop video games. All the classes were so exciting that the students got decision making conflicts regarding which class to take. They wished they could take all the classes but they were to take only one class.

Come Monday, everything was set and the classes started with Introduction to the PCDuino Information of what the students shall be learning from the camp. The students in the foundation class found scratch interesting with the drag and drop blocks that helped them in building their software projects. It became even more fun when they added in sensors, hardware like lighting the LED light when the programs run, using infra-red sensors to play football in the game with different sprites/objects.

In the middle of the week, the Art class was already set up and each class had an hour each day to go to the art room and draw, make paper circuits for lighting a tiny LED light, build Legos, fly drones (this was the coolest part :-) ), fly wooden planes and do turns of cool stuff. As a trainer, it was really an amazing experience for me because I had never seen anything of that kind. The activities in the Art room would make you think of and see everything in a different way. With the fun I had in the Art room on the first and following days, I was sure the students were having twice as much fun as I was having as some built amazing things with the Legos, others draw art as others went for the electronics. I even got to be guided by an already acquainted  student on how to make the paper circuits it was really awesome.

This Robotics Camp is organized and sponsored for every January since 2010 by Sandra Washburn, the Founder of Oysters & Pearls - Uganda. It started with working with caretakers of the visually impaired students to give them mobility training and providing white cranes to help them navigate around their schools without hardship. Oysters and Pearls focuses on integrating technology and science in schools that are inclusive of the blind. It also advocates for women and girls’ opportunities in education and sports as well as promoting wildlife conservation.

People from different parts of the world can see the value of technology in the young generation and are willing to provide the resources and share the knowledge they have with us. This should be our obligation to carry it on and continue to inspire and share the knowledge we get with every one that is reachable and willing to learn. The onus is on us to either leave Uganda the way we found it or to make it even better. I personally, am excited to see what these children shall come up with in the next few years, considering their passion and the skills they have gained from the robotics camp.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Kids into developing Technologies

What was your experience during school and while growing up? Well, mine was not so different from the many Ugandans’ of my times and before. The school curriculum included Mathematics, English, and Social Studies and Science including other activities like Physical Exercises and outside school, I would learn how to do house chores.  All I had to think about was the four subjects, who to play with and when to play. Problems were for the grown-ups and they were the ones to solve them.
Students in rural schools

Other Activities the students do

Then, none or just one person in the whole society owned a mobile phone which was mostly likely to be a company phone as Technology was just in its initial stages of development. Computers were owned by very big companies if not only the government ministries. Communication was through letters if not physical. And data in schools, businesses, hospitals, police stations and banks was recorded on and stored in hard copy,  usually a huge stack of papers in enormous box files.
If I was to ask, what was the first time you saw a computer or even a mobile phone and what was that time you first used any of the two technologies? Would your answer be as early as you were in primary or secondary which would be the same answer I would give if I was asked? My first time to interact with a computer was in my senior two in a computer lesson.
Thanks to innovators and technology, all those times are just part of history, currently there are smart phones, computers, laptops, tablets, different kinds of gadgets, devices and many technologies. Many urban kids in Uganda learn of and are exposed to all these as early as age 3. They learn how to operate these gadgets and they become part of them.
Have you thought of how great it would be if these kids took part in the creation of ideas and development of these technologies? With the amazing imaginations and fresh minds the kids have, there is no doubt the future's so bright. Giving a chance to children to take part in the in developing outstanding technologies, brings us an exciting present and a cheerful future.

Well, I got to be part of the excited ones when I got to hear about Scratch and that kids would get an opportunity to be part of the technology developers’ world as they identify problems they face as kids or in their societies and get to use technology to solve them. Scratch is a software that gives kids the power to create programs that could include games, software applications by dragging and dropping blocks.

The kids of Mbarara Preparatory School and Mburara International School were all filled with excitement when they got to learn of how much they would do with Scratch. Most of the kids could not wait to tell their parents to install the software on the computers at their homes. At the end of the session, one little boy wants to build a better version of the FIFA game in the future with Scratch. Let’s all be part of building the future with technology as we involve the young generation.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Ideation Camp At MUST

Outbox brings the Intel Ideation Camp to the West; an exciting way to begin the weekend with guidance through innovation and Entrepreneurship by trainers from Outbox to the youth in ICS Mbarara University of Science and Technology. 
The Intel Ideation Camp is a 2 days long workshop in which participants go through the learning process to ideate, innovate and imagine solutions to identified problems.

It started with a speech from the institute director, aimed at guiding the youth through coming up with ideas that solve a problem that is faced by the many Ugandans, with the excitement and vigor  among the students to find out what happens, students were taken through a step by step journey.

Students identified themselves as hackers, hustlers or artists to form teams. Choosing a particular sector from agriculture, health and education, they listed the different problems selecting one most pressing problem among the many with a broader understanding of the user that is most affected by the problem. "Fall in love with the problem".

The second day of the ideation students came out with a series of ideas just in a limited time to solve the identified problem "Ideas are actually cheap". This stage was very interacting as students had to select the most feasible idea with more team discussion, getting minds to work and thinking out of the box. Some students came up with great ideas about developing mobile apps, information systems and web applications. 

Preparing for the final step, time to get our hands dirty and get the minds to work. First, students described a clear problem statement, the target users, , solution to the problem through a technology approach as identified in the idea, research about the existing related applications, the uniqueness of the product and finally how the youth plan to earn from their innovation that is, their business model.

Different teams pitched their ideas and this was the most challenging and educative stage of the Ideation Camp to almost all the students that participated. It involved serious critiquing, advise and encouragement to the different groups that presented. Of course there is always first time for everything so hope it was a great experience to everyone and  for the students who never completed the camp, you really missed a lot. Lets Innovate. Innovations fail but don't be discouraged just keep trying.