Coding in the Armenian Classroom: A Quiet Revolution

Gargar school children discussing their first coding project
Gargar school children discussing their first coding project

Gargar school children discussing their first coding project

BY LILIT PETROSYAN

Boundaries? Let’s Break Them

Today’s world is completely submerged into digital experiences with the trendy newsmaker – artificial intelligence shaping our tomorrow. Controlling home appliances with a simple voice command or making investments in self-driving cars are not abstracts from science fiction any longer. This is the reality we all live in, and it would be naive to fall behind the tech innovation flow.

Four of the Luys Scholars from UC Berkeley and Stanford University believe that Armenia has a huge potential for not only catching up with the world’s digital innovations but also for being the creators of its future.  With PicsArt, Shadowmatic, Instigate, and Synopsis in the Armenian tech portfolio, the enormity of the tech power speaks for itself.

Witnessing the successful debut of chess into the national curriculum in elementary schools, as well as the groundbreaking success stories of Tumo and Ayb school alumni, the Luys Scholars have teamed up around the project “Code for Armenia.” They want to push the school intelligence bar to the next level and are currently working on a revolutionary idea of enhancing creative technical skills of Armenian youngsters by introducing programming as a new subject in the national curriculum.

“Children are going to learn not only how to work on the computer but also how the computer works. Ultimately, they are going to make the computer work for them,” says Hayk Tepanyan, a Computer Science major at Stanford University.

This is a very ambitious and challenging project, however, Hayk and his teammates are convinced that the project’s long-term outcomes are going to be groundbreaking in a number of ways.

“This is another way for the “Chess Empire” to stand out with an innovative approach – being amongst the first countries in the world to provide a state-wide computer science training in public schools,” says Hayk.

Catching Up With The Innovation Flow

Integrating programming in the school curriculum is certainly an international trend: Canada, Australia, Finland and a number of other countries are shifting the school’s focus from teaching software programs towards computer coding, or in other words from learning how to create Excel spreadsheets and Powerpoint presentations towards learning how those programs work.

The UK’s model, in particular, is very inspiring. Roughly four years ago, the UK Education advocates got convinced that their school’s computer literacy curriculum was outdated and irrelevant for modern-day technical standards and future employment. Together with such tech giants as Microsoft and Google, the British developed a new coding curriculum and starting from September 2014, schools across the UK replaced the subject of Information and Communication Technology with Computing, one of the key components of the subject being the teaching of coding in the classroom.

Today the British children, as young as five years old, talk about algorithms and debugging. They now have a chance to model their very own computer games that they so much like to play.

The Luys Scholar helping children create their first animation project

The Luys Scholar helping children create their first animation project

Dreaming Big: Gargar’s Case Study

“I wish we had coding classes at school. I’d create programs to support our army if I were a developer,” says an eight-year-old Mushegh from Gargar’s secondary school.

During the summer of 2016, the “Code for Armenia” project initiators and a number of other Luys mentors and mentees gathered together in Gargar, a small village in Lori region, Armenia. They planned to transform the secondary school of Gargar into a real coding hub. For almost two weeks, school children from the grades two to five started learning the basics of computer programming.

“Every three children were supervised by one instructor which helped foster comprehension and keep up the learning motivation,” says Hayk, “We were surprised to monitor how quickly and ardently the children were passing the assignments. They maintained the same level of intensive focus throughout the course despite its vigorousness.”

The coding curriculum of the course was designed in an interactive fun way, with lots of outdoor activities, gaming and visual art elements which particularly helped children focus on learning and smart thinking while also having fun.

“My favourite part of the project was working on the computer. I would like to have coding classes at least twice a week, like we do for other subjects in school, mathematics, for example,” says a ten-year-old Borik from the summer training program, “I wish our school at least had a coding lab where we can create some interesting projects. I want to build robots, that’s what I like doing the most,” continues an eight-year-old Mane.

The training was constructed on the educational material of code.org, an online coding platform with hundreds of programming videos and other valuable materials, Aside from learning, the team wanted the children to create their own projects so the instructors largely focused on developing creative skills. Within a very short period, the children were able to draw their very own patterns using their coding skills.

“The training was a great success,” says Hayk, “It gained such popularity that the size of the class doubled in a course of a week. The children were amazed how a couple of code lines could create the animation they had projected.”

The pilot project in Gargar gave a big flow of observations and enhancement ideas to the Luys Scholars. They were able to gauge the scaling opportunities of the project and are currently reaching out to partners and volunteers for a wide-ranging roadmap.

Building the Roadmap to Something Better

The Luys Scholars have already held a couple of preliminary meetings with public and private parties for advice and insight. Levon Mkrtchyan, the Minister of Education and Sciences, overall has expressed a very positive outlook on the project and acknowledged the urgency of having enhanced quality computer literacy throughout the country. The importance of shifting from a computer literacy towards programming literacy in Armenia is particularly accentuated by the economic state of the landlocked state where the human potential and brain power have always been its major resources. The project, along with its long-term socio-economic impact, is also closely related to the national security and education development strategies.

In fact, lots of Armenian professionals share the same ideas about having enhanced computer science courses in public schools. Among many others, the Luys Scholars have met with Yervand Zoryan (Chief Architect at Synopsys), Karen Vardanyan (CEO of the Union of Information Technology Enterprises), Vahan Shakaryan (Director of Technology and Science Dynamics Inc/Armtab Technologies) and Vahagn Poghosyan (Co-founder of Instigate). They all cheer the thrilling idea of Luys Scholars and are very positive about a successful cooperation and implementation.

The team is particularly envisioning a partnership with the UITE. The latter is continuously creating engineering labs in public schools throughout Armenia within the “Armath” engineering lab project.  Annually, the UITE creates more than 300 labs in all the regions, and by 2019 (Armenia will host the World Tech Forum) the number of laboratories is aimed to reach 1,200. It is truly remarkable that the computer programs and systems used in those labs are operating in Armenian and even the equipment, like 3D printers, minicomputers, and robotics kits are all produced in Armenia.

“We’re first targeting to launch the coding project as an after-school class to make our first observations before scaling it,” says Hayk, “The best part is that to kick-start the project we do not need an extensive teacher training or production of academic textbooks. Code.org has an excellent educational database and an open source teacher training that are easily adjustable to any course length or level of competence. Translating those materials is, perhaps, the greatest challenge at the moment and we’re continually recruiting volunteers to help us with that.”

Even though the ultimate goal of the program is to create a quality tech workforce for the development of the high-tech industry in Armenia, the Luys Scholars are convinced that programming skills are interwoven into multiple other disciplines and professions. By learning how to code, children get a better chance to think creatively and get empowered to build their own. It’s a long-term “investment” into developing logical thinking professionals in their ultimate careers. In fact, the experience of different economies of the world shows that with every new workplace created in the tech sector, six-seven new other workplaces are created in the adjacent sectors. Thus, similar to the chess, teaching how to code in schools is all about building a character and not necessarily breeding engineers.

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