Coding Cats nurtures students’ creativity, problem solving skills

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As an online community which is mainly aimed at children, the block-based visual programming language called Scratch enables users to create games, animations and other practical tools in a more light-hearted way than other programming languages such as Python and Java. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Coding Cats, an early-stage digital education programme jointly operated by Saturday Kids Singapore and Raintree Cambodia, is helping local students discover their potential and creativity through the process of learning to code.

The programme, which is free of charge, has eliminated the foreign language barrier by creating tools in Khmer for block-based coding language Scratch, allowing its curriculum to be accessible to younger students.

The first digital coding course conducted by Coding Cats had 100 participants. Now, with a new curriculum, the programme is targeting younger children between eight to 12 years old with the option to learn coding in Khmer or English through Scratch.

Raintree Cambodia community manager Chan Penhleak said that the new programme will start on October 5 and concludes in December. It is open for younger students than the first course, which only enrolled children between 15 and 18 years old.

“In the previous batch of graduates, Coding Cats taught students how to code based on Scratch in English.

“After we finished the first programme, our trainers noticed that some students found it challenging to learn coding with Scratch because the tools are in English.

“Some students had to spend some time translating the words before they can continue working on their projects,” said Penhleak, who graduated from Skidmore College in New York state.

“This is one reason slowing down their learning compared to their peers who are already familiar with English tools. It’s not that their English isn’t good. It might be that their level of digital literacy is lower or coding and the tools in Scratch are new to them.”

As an online community which is mainly aimed at children, the block-based visual programming language called Scratch enables users to create games, animations and other practical tools in a more light-hearted way than other programming languages such as Python and Java.

Its interface shows a stage area, block palettes and a coding area to place and arrange the blocks into run-able scripts.

The website lets users use their creativity to put together different graphics, sounds and other programmes to form their personalised project.

With everything in English, young Cambodian users may need to pause to process the information as they are not familiar with digital lingo.

“To cope with this problem and make learning more effective, our trainers created Khmer language tools so that our students with all levels of English language can catch up and learn without any hassle,” said Penhleak.

Scratch has been translated into more than 70 languages with more than 40 million projects shared by over 40 million users, according to the community statistics on its official website.

Penhleak was excited with the release of the first version of a visual block-based programming language in Khmer.

“Generally, in other countries around the world, when they first create an application or platform, the initial language of the tool is English.

“Later, they will build another sets of tools in the respective local language to make it easier for learning. Students will understand what has been taught quicker and teachers also find it more convenient to teach in the local language. This is the reason why we decided to create tools in Khmer.”

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Saturday Kids Singapore co-founder and CEO John Tan (left) and Raintree Cambodia community manager Chan Penhleak. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Most of the 15 trainers teaching the first course, which consisted of up to 16 hours of learning time over five weeks, had IT and tech related degrees, as well as coding experience . Each class also had a foreign trainer and three to four local trainers.

Of the students who have been selected to participate in the programme free of charge, 80 per cent are from public schools. Additonally, nearly 50 per cent of the selected students have no computer skills.

Katam Vimolyboromtepi is a first batch graduate of the Coding Cats programme who just finished Grade 10 at Chea Sim Choy Changvar High School. She was encouraged by her high school teachers to enrol in the course.

“They want to see their students catch up in terms of tech skills. It’s also my passion to learn coding. What I have learnt at Raintree will enable me to create games based on my own concepts,” she said.

“The first week, my trainers introduced me to basic and introductory coding in Scratch. In the second week, they started giving me projects to work on. The final week, we were asked to create our own project and present it to our classmates.

“At first, I didn’t know anything about coding. I only knew that Coding Cats teaches students how to create games.

“My expectation from the training is to be able to create my own game and link what I have learnt to my future skills because I want to be an expert in IT,” the 16-year-old continued.

After completing the course, students are encouraged to continue self-learning by building on the basic knowledge they have learnt through Scratch.

Penhleak said the course was designed to inspire curiosity, creativity and resourcefulness equipping students with the ability to build a variety of original animations, stories and games. Most importantly, he added, it’s not only about learning digital literacy and technical skills, but also critical thinking and personal creativity.

“Coding Cats provides free digital training to high school students to boost their potential in the tech world. Through an educational and fun coding lesson, they will realise their strengths and dreams. It can enhance their curiosity, intelligence, creativity and problem solving skills,” he said.

Boosted by the encouraging results from the first course, Coding Cats is now aiming to plant the digital seed in younger children, especially as they found that the first batch of older graduates struggled to juggle their outside commitments and the course.

“The previous batch of graduates were older. They were happy and excited to learn coding with us, but were tied up with their intensive learning for Grade 12 exams and graduating from high school. We found that they didn’t have time to squeeze in any extracurricular programmes,” said Penhleak.

“Therefore, we thought of creating this new course for younger children who have more spare time than their seniors. We also wish to introduce tech education to the younger generation, so they will be more comfortable and confident in utilising it in a creative way in the future.”

More information on Coding Cats can be found on Raintree’s website (www.raintreecambodia.com) and Facebook (@RaintreeCambodia).