Engineers Without Borders reaches out to schools, now with added coding

engineers-without-borders1Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB) just got a Google RISE Award to establish a new ‘Coding for Development’ workshop module for high school students.

EWB does some very worthwhile stuff including an extensive local schools outreach program. The existing program has three modules:

  • Floating Houses: addresses the nature and need of living on the Tonle Sap Lake (Cambodia) within a floating community. The concept of buoyancy is discussed and students are tasked with building a miniature floatinghouse using ordinary household materials. Their designs are evaluated by adding marbles until they sink.
  • Prosthetic Leg: addresses the key components and function of the human knee joint. Students construct a prosthetic leg from the knee down out of ordinary household materials. Their designs are tested by using them to walk. This module is highly relevant to the Bionics module of Year 12 Senior Science, as well as the Body Systems topic in Year 8 Science.
  • Murray Darling: is a discussion-based module where students are presented with an interactive game to model different “flows” of water. It covers key challenges associated with sustainable water usage, political and environmental issues. The module also raises awareness to the Murray Darling Basin’s cultural importance and significance to the Indigenous community.

Overall these are extremely worthwhile activities, which more teachers should be aware of. The combination of technology and social development is absolutely laudable. The new Coding for Development module looks likely to be an excellent extension of the program. We had a brief chat with Alisha Ryans-Taylor who runs the program:

How will Coding for Development work – what do you see the program looking like?
The program is at its piloting stage now, and the Project Team is about to run some ‘train-the-trainer’ sessions with experienced High School Outreach presenters in Western Australia this month. In its current form (after some feedback from presenters and some student interns) the workshop introduces high school students to the Raspberry Pi, and teaches some basic hardware skills. Ultimately the workshop utilises a Raspberry Pi, breadboard, LED, GPS module and FM transmitter to make a rudimentary emergency beacon, which can transmit via radio the users’ location, a distress message, and has a light for attracting attention. Additional elements to add are a battery and solar panel to run it off grid at a later stage.

The workshop teaches basic Python syntax, for loops, ‘or/else’ statements, and introduces students to command lines and programming logic. It also discusses the possible uses of coding in an emergency or humanitarian context (examples include using mapping for determining land rights in post-conflict zones, making simple medical diagnostic kits with Raspberry Pis and Arduinos, water testing kits, rainfall and soil sensors for remote cropping operations, etc).

We encourage students at the end of the workshop to pursue more coding activities online if they are interested in learning more (such as ‘Hour of Code’, ‘Scratch’, Made With Code, etc). We hope that we can work as a launching point to engage young people in the practical uses and problem-solving applications of coding in a real world context.

Your existing outreach programs run for about 90 minutes, how would you deal with coding in that time?  
Whilst a workshop that could fit into a 1 or 2 hour class session would be ideal, the content that we want to cover currently runs as a 3 – 4 hour workshop. We will be rolling it out as a half-day event for students (either at their schools, or at a central hub as an excursion) and we will see over time if it can be broken down into smaller modules to fit a school timetable more readily.

So how will this work in a Sydney context – which Unis and schools are involved?
Our Sydney roll out is yet to happen, but we currently have Engineers Without Borders Chapters based at University of Sydney, UNSW, UTS, and Newcastle, which will be the sites of our NSW pilot sessions. One of our Project Team is based in Sydney, and joins us on a Google Hangout weekly along with team members from Melbourne, Queensland, and New Zealand. The pilot sessions in NSW are due to roll out in either December 2014, or January next year.

From every point of view EWB’s efforts should be applauded and supported – both for their general engineering work and these excellent outreach programs. This latest one putting coding and electronics into a real-world context is really exciting. For all the details on Engineers Without Borders Australia and their outreach program see their website.

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