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Shaping up the future through coding

Shaping up the future through coding

Nathan Damtew is founder and CEO of BeBlocky, a gamified programming learning app for kids, and founder and managing director of Yenetta Code, a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education center based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew spoke to him about the companies, coding and other different stuff. Excerpts:

Tell me about BeBlocky?

BeBlocky is an educational programming platform aimed at equipping African children with the fundamentals of computer programming. It uses graphical programming blocks to introduce kids to coding in an intuitive manner. It's a mobile first app that works fully offline with no to less access to data and leverages the cutting edge Augmented Reality (AR) technology to make the learning process fun and interactive.

BeBlocky offers children brands a unique way to engage with their audience by placing their brand mascots and game environments theme after their brand within the app.

How does it work and where is it available?

BeBlocky is an educational programming platform aimed at equipping African children with the fundamentals of computer programming. Inspired by the popular Scratch Programming language used by millions around the world, BeBlocky uses graphical programming blocks to introduce kids to coding in an intuitive manner. Instead of typing the source code, kids just have to visually drag and snap them together to help their character, Blockys, solve different game puzzles all while learning to program. BeBlocky's interactive use of the curriculum makes it possible for children to learn at their own pace. Coding tutorials are also available as children unlock new lessons.

To make the app more interactive and fun, BeBlocky leverages the cutting edge Augmented Reality Technology to bring the entire game environment to the real world. As kids work on their puzzles, the kids can go around the game environment to have a better look at the puzzles and experience a new learning way.

With BeBlocky, kids learn the basics of programming like sequencing, loops, conditionals, functions and variables with coding games. It has 100 challenging levels that help children build a good foundation. As they finish each level, they will be rewarded with virtual coins depending on their performance which they can later use to buy new Blockys.  Blockys are game characters with oversized heads, large beautiful eyes and disproportionately small bodies. Their cutesy design makes them look very child friendly and fun to play with.

BeBlocky is currently available on Google Play for free. So far, it’s been downloaded more than 14,000 times from all around the world. 

Share with me the importance of coding and some of its importance locally? What are you planning to achieve with BeBlocky?

In a world where nations are racing to build a digital economy, Africa suffers from a shortage of developers – the architects of this digital economy. To put it into perspective, Code.org pointed out the need for the younger generation to be abreast with developments in the Tech world. The report noted that 71 percent of all new STEM jobs are in computing, yet only eight percent of STEM graduates in Africa are in Computer Science or related fields. 

This is even as predictions warned that over the next two decades, machine learning, robots and automation will replace about 47 percent of current jobs. There is a growing understanding around the world that knowing how to program is essential, especially for younger generations. Coding is an invaluable skill that not enough Africans in the workforce master. And having to know that less than 1% of African children leave school with basic knowledge of coding, it would take us way longer than expected to catch up to the world, let alone get ahead of it. 

Kids nowadays are growing up in a different world than a few years back. Cell phones, tablets and digital games have been embedded in their daily lives. We are living in a digital world and it is only going to grow in the future. Although it is one thing for kids to know how to use these technologies, it is another for them to understand the logic behind them. I believe these children must be able to not only passively consume these technologies but also become innovators and creators of them. Thus, BeBlocky has embarked on the need to encourage young Africans to start coding from a very young age.

Technology nowadays is reshaping all areas of our lives. Our goal at BeBlocky is to equip kids with builder skills, such as thinking, prototyping and programming while leveraging their imaginations and creativity. These skills are vital for them to become innovators and creators no matter what discipline they choose to pursue. Computational thinking will soon permeate every field, so understanding computational logic and learning how to program at an early age will arm kids with the tools they'll need to succeed in the near future.

I believe Digital literacy is the great equalizer. Technology will continue to be a driving force in education. We at BeBlocky believe that we can enable kids to change their economic trajectory, by providing them with the skills that will one day help them in acquiring the best tech jobs possible.

We aim to equip 50 Million+ African children with basic programming skills within the next 5-10 Years. Over the coming years, we’ll keep working towards making our app accessible from everywhere and for every child to achieve our goal. Learning to code shouldn’t be only for the lucky and privileged few, but for every child. 

How did you start coding?

The 1st time I ever coded was back when I was in junior high school, Saint Joseph School. Even though me and my classmates were all tech savvy, coding was very new for most of us. I remember how excited I was when I first wrote my first program. It was a program that displayed “Hello World” when it ran. It felt like I discovered fire. 

I understand you have started yoga. What does that mean to your busy life?

I am a runner, I have always been inclined to sports that involve running in them, like basketball and ground tennis, and that has been my primary source of exercising efforts.  Working on a computer for more than 8 hours a day doesn’t seem to be a physically demanding task rather, a mental workout. But lately I kept finding myself physically exhausted time and time again. I couldn’t figure out why this tiredness kept occurring. I was desperate for a solution, and running didn’t seem to be helping. I needed to reboot.

2 Months ago, my colleague and I were looking for extracurricular activities to involve into Yenetta Code’s online sessions and we found Yoga more relevant. We then started to look for instructors that would be willing to work with us and one of them invited us to join his evening Yoga session. I didn’t hesitate when he offered. 

I have been doing Yoga twice a week for over a month now. It made me realize that my physical exhaustion came from my internal tightness, from the piled up stress from my day, week. . . As I have mentioned on my recent blog about Yoga and Coding, I have never been aware of my breathing and my body until I started Yoga. The entire time I felt exhausted, my body was telling me I needed to rest and relax.

As my very first session came to an end, I knew Yoga is gonna help me cope with my busy life and help me reboot myself.
 

What advice do you have to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?

All I want to say to those who want to follow my footsteps is it doesn’t matter when they start as long as they do. They’ll probably face different challenges time and time again but they don’t let it stop them. 

Any last words?

Our goal with BeBlocky may sound ambitious and a bit far-fetched but it can easily be attained with the help of a few international organizations. I call all the organizations working with children, quality education, technology, and economic growth to help us inspire the next generation of African Coders.