MANDELA DAY 2023
Fun and gaming – 10,000 SA kids show off coding chops in nationwide tournament
Children from across South Africa competed in a ‘Code4Mandela’ tournament on Tuesday, using a gaming app designed to teach coding concepts in a fun and accessible way. It was organised by Tangible Africa, a joint project of the Nelson Mandela University computing sciences department and the Leva Foundation.
For the Mandela Day coding tournament, “Code4Mandela”, 10,000 school children gathered at 75 sites across South Africa on Tuesday. The young coders worked in teams of five, racing their way through a game designed to teach basic coding concepts.
The tournament was spearheaded by Tangible Africa, a joint project of the Nelson Mandela University computing sciences department and the nonprofit Leva Foundation which seeks to make coding concepts more accessible to children. The first such event took place in Gqeberha in 2018, with just 30 participants.
“We’ve found that over the years, these sorts of creative thinking and problem-solving skill sets – those 21st-century skills – have drawn through a whole different group of kids. Normally, it’s your sportsmen or your academics that are shining, and we found that there’s a whole new group of kids that are… really good at this game, which is really exciting to see. So, it’s identifying those kids with those 21st-century skill sets,” said Leva Foundation CEO Ryan le Roux.
“Every year, [the tournament has] grown a bit bigger, to where it is now. AWS [Amazon Web Services] InCommunities have really come on board this year, in a big way, as a main sponsor.”
In Cape Town, more than 100 pupils gathered at City Hall and the Central Library for the tournament, with support from the city’s Library and Information Services Department. As the gaming app was made available to participants well before Mandela Day, the teams were made up of the top five app users from various schools and libraries.
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The teams received puzzle pieces with fragments of code on them and a device with the gaming app. The objective was to catch a poacher by moving a ranger across the grid to his location, by arranging the physical puzzle pieces in the correct order and scanning the resultant code into the app. The game became more challenging as teams “levelled up”.
“It’s interesting how you control the game in the phone with the pieces on the table,” said Fadzaishe Sambumba, a Grade 7 pupil from Central Park Primary School. “It’s not good to underestimate your opponent, so I’m not sure if we’ll win. We’ll just try our best and hope they do their best as well.”
Sambumba told Daily Maverick she was excited and nervous in the lead-up to the tournament. However, she was familiar with the app because it had been introduced to her at school more than two months earlier.
“I do enjoy the coding,” said Ashleigh Naube, another Central Park pupil. “I enjoy the way we play – it’s like you’re making a puzzle or something.”
The Ocean View Library team took first place at the Cape Town tournament site, with the teams from Excelsior High School and Valhalla Park Library coming second and third, respectively. All teams had an opportunity to explore the Nelson Mandela Legacy Exhibition housed at City Hall.
The top teams from across the country will be competing against each other and international groups from Africa and Europe in a “world cup of coding” in December, according to Le Roux.
The broader vision
The earliest version of the gaming app used in the tournament was developed by Nelson Mandela University student Byron Batteson for his honours project in 2017. The potential of the project was identified by Professor Jean Greyling, head of the computing sciences department.
“It really is a cool and fun way to get people involved in playing and involved in coding. So, the fun part was really the gamification side, and we found that was the reason kids want to do stuff. And when they’re having fun you can teach them a few things as well,” said Le Roux.
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“It’s not an expensive intervention – you don’t need huge, fancy computers; you don’t need WiFi… so, we’ve been into some of the remote parts of South Africa, as well as Africa… [The app] is really translatable to all areas because of the low-tech entry point.”
Beyond introducing school children to the app and coding as a source of fun, Tangible Africa aims to promote software development as a viable career, he explained.
“There’s a shortage in skills in software development. So, once we’ve done that awareness [building], the top kids at schools are identified through the app… We then put them into our Tangible Academy, where on weekends and afternoons we have tutors who come in and give them support in maths, and in some places English as well… to get their scores up so they can get into university,” said Le Roux.
“The idea is, we really want to broaden the pipeline of kids going into software development.” DM