Nelson Mandela University: Primary school learners code up a storm

The first-ever Unplugged Coding Competition for primary school coding clubs in Nelson Mandela Bay was hosted on Friday (June 10) at Summerwood Primary School.

Colourfully dressed teams from coding clubs representing Erica Girls Primary School, Collegiate Junior School for Girls, Brylin Private School and Parsons Hill Primary School joined host school Summerwood Primary for a fun-filled afternoon of coding.

More than 130 Grade 5-7 learners played a 45-minute game of TANKS, the coding app game developed by a former Nelson Mandela University postgraduate Computing Sciences student, Byron Batteson.

The schools’ coding clubs were introduced to the magic of coding through an engagement project known as Tangible Africa, a collaboration between the Nelson Mandela University Computing Sciences Department and Leva Foundation.

Nelson Mandela University Computing Sciences Associate Professor, Jean Greyling, is well-known for spreading awareness about coding to South African youth and abroad, and as project coordinator of Tangible Africa he briefed the excited learners before the games began.

As a special surprise – that not even Greyling was aware of – a pre-recorded video message from Nelson Mandela University alumnus and Amazon Vice-President David Brown was also played in which he wished the players good luck before the competition.

“I got my very first computer [in primary school], well it was more like a fancy calculator, that I taught myself to programme on. And that is where I discovered the world of programming, and it is something that I still enjoy doing today. I wasn’t as lucky as you to have TANKS, which teaches you how to programme in a really fun and interesting way,” said Brown.

TANKS uses tokens resembling puzzle pieces and image recognition on the mobile App, which requires no data once the level has been downloaded from the App and Play store, said Bronwen Jonson, Summerwood Primary School Coding Club teacher and organiser of the Unplugged Coding Competition Day.

“This means all the learners have an equal playing field, and we encourage everyone in the teams to participate. The game teaches the learners there is more than one way to get to an answer, not to give up and other valuable problem-solving skills,” said Jonson.

Learners are introduced to basic coding concepts, which increases in complexity levels as they progress.

A total of 32 teams participated in the Unplugged Coding Competition Day and winning prizes were sponsored by parents from Summerwood Primary School as well as Bargain Books. Twizza supplied a soft drink for all the participants.

“There was no charge for the competition, but we asked parents to donate prizes in order for as many teams as possible to win something. The prizes were for the top ten teams, and other fun categories like ‘best dressed’ or ‘best group name’ etc.,” said Jonson.

While the coding club at Summerwood Primary School only started this year, she said the enthusiasm for coding has grown so much that it is now offered four days a week for different age groups at the school.

“We would love to do more of these Unplugged Coding Competition Days, as it is a great confidence booster for all the learners. Once our learners completed all 35 levels of TANKS, they will receive a certificate of completion,” said Jonson.

Summerwood Primary School learners make no secret of their excitement for coding as an afterschool activity. ” I love coding because it challenges my brain and it’s exciting to come to after a long day at school,” said Jennifer Hamilton, a Grade 7-learner.

Grade 5-learner, Ziva Meyer, agrees: “I think coding is a brain game. It makes you think out of the box, and it challenges you to try out new ideas to solve the problem. I love to do coding with my friends!”.

Two additional coding apps using the same concept as TANKS: namely, BOATS and RANGERS have also been developed to expose more youth to coding, similarly without the use of computers, using offline, cost-effective instruments.