te(a)ch: Teaching code for youth empowerment and wellness

Photo credit: Taha Tabish

Youth trainer Ruth Kaviok of Arviat flashes a smile at the camera while she tests a game she developed.

The “knowledge economy,” built on information rather than means of production, is the fastest growing economic sector in Canada and perhaps, most importantly, a sustainable prospect for Northern economic development. A strong knowledge of computers and how they work is an essential component in many aspects of innovation, and allows people to create and participate in a sector responsible for $117 billion of Canadian GDP (Brookfield Institute, 2016), and it requires little more equipment than a computer. Despite the growing need for computer skills, computer science is not currently formally taught in Nunavut schools.

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning, in general, and computer sciences such as computer programming/coding, specifically, are well known to have a significant participation gap and underrepresentation of female and Indigenous learners. Programs such as the Government of Canada’s initiative entitled “Career Alliance 360 – Inspiring Girls in STEM/Indigenous Inclusion” aim to close the gap. In Nunavut, the lack of a formal computer science program in the school system, as well as limited access to science and technology-based learning, present an even more significant barrier.

As Pinnguaq grew from its home in Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), Nunavut, a desire to build and hire locally to create a sustainable presence became paramount in its growth strategy. With a computer science course, or anything similar, not available at the local school, the first “Code Club” was born. In early 2014, in partnership with the Pangnirtung Youth Centre and Electronic Arts, 20 kids took part in a one-week course, which was followed by weekly get-togethers to explore game design, computer science, and engineering. In 2015, in partnership with Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, the program was expanded to Arviat, NU. Since then, the program has adapted to respond to the needs of youth participants and most recently was delivered in other Nunavut communities, including Iqaluit, Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet) and Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) in 2017.

Discussing ideas of creativity and innovation provided an opportunity for youth to situate themselves within the Inuit tradition of solution-seeking, problem-solving, and innovating.

What is te(a)ch?

te(a)ch is a program that teaches computer coding, game design, engineering, and computer science from an absolute beginner level to more advanced techniques. Pinnguaq, Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, Isaksimagit Inuusirmi Katujjiqaatigiit Embrace Life Council, and other partners from around Nunavut have been working together to co-create and expand the program.

te(a)ch has been developed in Nunavut, with Nunavummiut. As a result, both the content and the teaching methods include Inuit cultural experiences/values and Inuit learning techniques and methods. At these events, students are taught basic computer programming, mathematics, physics, and engineering skills via video game creation. Over five days, the participants create six original games and develop an understanding of the inner workings of a computer’s “brain” and how it “thinks.” Young Nunavummiut are already playing video games, so this program engages youth directly on terms they are familiar with. However, their relationship with games and gaming devices is one based solely on consumption – someone develops a game, they find it interesting, and they play it for entertainment. Our program shifts their relationship with technology to one about creation. They have the knowledge, capacity, and skills to create their own narratives, tell their own stories, and bring joy and fun to others through game development.

The model for the program includes a week-long workshop led by te(a)ch facilitators from Pinnguaq and Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre to train older youth who are interested in learning about and teaching video game design to younger youth participants and peers. During the workshops, we offer a mini “club” program during which the new trainees have the opportunity to practice their new skills by delivering the program to younger participants in their community with the hands-on support of the te(a)ch facilitators. After the week-long workshop, the te(a)ch facilitators leave and the program continues to be delivered by the trainees. They can reach out for support at any time. The te(a)ch program model supports trainers and community members to create clubs in their communities to continue the program throughout the year. Sessions have included participants as young as 6 and as old as 26 years of age. This exciting response to the program has directly contributed to the way the curriculum and program continue to evolve and to respond to the diversity of ages and needs.

Our approach engages learners in as much creative production as possible while developing and applying basic skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Incorporating creative and digital “hands on” approaches broadens participation and engagement in science-based learning, as well as builds on Indigenous and culturally-responsive pedagogy related to experiential and practice-based learning. Furthermore, our learning spaces support the building of positive relationships and connections between youth through creative expression, while offering positive adult role models. This multi-faceted approach contributes to the development of a sense of agency, resilience, and empowerment among the participating youth; it also provides a creative outlet to tell stories, use multiple languages, and develop a sense of self and social/emotional wellness.

Photo credit: Taha Tabish

Brandon Bunnie of Pinnguaq works with Harvey Tunnuq in Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake) to troubleshoot a video game.

How Do Youth Feel About Participating?

The response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. We have observed youth helping each other as they learn at their own pace, and working with each other to solve new challenges that we post to them throughout the program. In Arviat, where Inuktitut language usage is strong, our youth trainers delivered program instruction in Inuktitut. It was an empowering experience for youth, and for the facilitators, to use their language in a technology-focused environment. When youth were taken through video game story development activities, narratives around acquiring knowledge about being proficient on the land (land safety and hunting skills) and being kind to others by helping a friend in need were key messages conveyed in their games.

Discussing ideas of creativity and innovation provided an opportunity for youth to situate themselves within the Inuit tradition of solution-seeking, problem-solving, and innovating. They found that technology was merely a new tool for them to use to craft new solutions for tomorrow. Youth led the development of a new platform for sharing stories and highlighting values and traits that were important to them. Our programs tend to end with big hugs, acts of kindness, and expressions of gratitude from the youth participants, the families and the facilitators.

Some of the thoughts our participants had about the program included:

Awesome!! Very Awesome!!

Best week ever!

(I would recommend Code Club to my friends) because you get to make new friends and you will know how to code!

I want all my friends to code!

I love the club.

It was really fun with you guys.

What’s Next?

In December 2016, te(a)ch was awarded the Arctic Inspiration Prize. Most recently, we have focused on the creation of a 52-week web-based curriculum delivery platform to be shared with communities. This would provide trainees a wide variety of content to work with, including sample code, suggested games to both create and play, and videos/advice from industry experts and teams from around Canada. This web-based curriculum resource would help contribute to the sustainability of te(a)ch over time. In the later half of 2017, our next steps in the expansion of the program will include building a network of teachers and trainers across the territory who can help deliver and administer the program, as well as contribute to its on-going adaptation. The goal is to increase the accessibility of the program and ensure its sustainability.

To realize this vision, we recognize that we have to work to address some challenges. Internet infrastructure in Nunavut is slow and expensive, and not everybody has access to it. We have been in contact with the Nunavut Public Library Services office, as well as different schools, to find creative ways to distribute materials through their networks and systems. Also, the high cost of travel in Nunavut makes it expensive for te(a)ch facilitators to fly to communities to start up new programs and deliver training. Lastly, the technology-focused nature of the program draws a pool of participants who are already inclined to such interests. Although developing the skills and competency of those who are already drawn to the subject matter is exciting, it is worth noting that this can also act to perpetuate gaps between participants and youth who were not targeted or engaged. Community partners have helped to identify and target youth for the program in advance, and efforts have been made to make sure there was a diverse mix of interests, backgrounds, genders, and ages in the programs. Overall, our programs have been made up of 42% female participants.

We have also developed a partnership with Computers for Schools Nunavut in 2017, which allowed us to provide laptops and coding software to the youth to take home to continue to develop their skills. This helps to bridge the gap in access to resources required to sustain skill development in this area. More can be done, though, to ensure that we are diminishing barriers and reaching as many youth as possible.

Photo credit: Taha Tabish

John Campbell, a youth participant in Arviat, gives a thumbs up to the camera.

Our Partners

In addition to our “on the ground partners” that we’ve listed above, it’s important to acknowledge the partnerships of Computers for Success Canada and Computers for Schools Nunavut which ensures we are able to implement this program and provide free laptops/desktops to participants in any community we go to. The financial support of the Mobilizing Inuit Cultural Heritage program, specifically the leadership of York University has also allowed us to focus on what needs to be done with this program in its development.

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge and welcome the support of each individual community and the organizations in those communities that make the program possible. The program will only ever be useful and effective if community members see it as addressing a need and have a desire to pursue it. We can supply the content and training, but it’s our community champions who give te(a)ch the life it currently has. ◉

Taha Tabish is the Health Technology Innovations Research Coordinator at the Qaujigiartiit Health Research Centre, in Iqaluit, Nunavut. He has a Master of Public Health from the University of Waterloo, and has a particular interest in the intersection of technology, community empowerment, and health and wellness. Ryan Oliver is the director of the Pinnguaq Association and a lead developer and coordinator of the te(a)ch program. The Pinnguaq Association is a cross-Canada organization with a mission to enable and advocate for tech and tech literacy across Nunavut.

References

Brookfield Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. (2016). The State of Canada’s Tech Sector, 2016. Available from: http://brookfieldinstitute.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/The-State-of-Canadas-Tech-Sector-2016v2.pdf


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