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Issue 37

IT BRAINIACS - It’s all about emotion...and talent... and lots of work...

Ileana Fritea
Președinte Apex-Edu @ Apex-Edu
OTHERS

It can be a bit intimidating to write an article on TSM as an expert in education, rather than an expert in the relevant field. At first... until I reached the 3rd or 4th line... when I realised that I am writing about talented students capable of nice performances in programming, about young programmers willing to share their experience, about learning, or the factors that influence performance in this field. That is, a subject of interest for any IT professional or company.

The ITBrainiacs programme developed by Apex-Edu and Telenav was designed with a focus on two main concepts: the need to discover as early as possible children/youth capable of high performances in the field, as well as the development of an intervention aimed to capitalize at the highest possible extent on the identified potential. A true intervention and, above all, an educational one, an experience that changes all involved.

Obviously I started off with what science teaches us. Educational literature emphasises the multi-deterministic nature of superior performances. Skills are important, whether we refer to general cognitive skills or very specific skills. Opportunities are important, whether they are an exceptional educational action within an institution, a fortuitous meeting with a mentor, or the luck to be in the right place at the right time... And add to all this the psychosocial skills that help us manage learning, motivation and emotions, to persevere, to persevere ... to persevere. Because work beats talent, if talent doesn't work hard enough....

A complex circumstance of the type described above is provided by the ITBrainiacs programme conducted by Apex-Edu and Telenav, which developed a framework for intense interaction between very bright students and passionate programmers, with a strong commitment to development and learning.

The ITBrainiacs Students

The average age of the ITBrainiacs students was 15, and they are 7th, 9th and 11th grade students with well-outlined interests in the field of IT and strongly motivated to learn. We selected them from around 70 applicants because they were the top 10 based on their results at specific psychological tests. Previous programming knowledge was not a requirement to be enrolled in this programme.

The ITBrainiacs Mentors

The ITBrainiacs mentors were passionate programmers at Telenav, who were happy to take on this challenge to share their experience and to get the children acquainted with various programming languages and to guide them in developing a programming product.

The Context

The ITBrainiacs programme was conducted over a period of 7 months and included weekly meetings between students and mentors, in a one-on-one format. A one-on-one format. I would like to repeat this several times because I think this was the key element to the success of this programme, that lucky circumstance. This type of interaction is, beyond any doubt, the main reason for the extremely personal and authentic nature of the experience ITBrainiacs has offered. Although I knew from theory the effects of mentoring on the education of students capable of high performances, the practical experience I had the privilege of being part of revealed to me the complex intertwining of the mechanisms that drive the children's development. Above all, this format enabled the mentors to customise the intervention depending on the real interests of the children. This full adaptation to the children's needs ensured a high level of motivation and enabled mentors to teach at the right time the strategies required to make learning easier or to provide a model of how to manage emotions that come with it.

Results

We started from scratch, with minimal or no programming knowledge, and this is what we achieved: two games developed under Java (Alien Invasion, a multiplayer target-based game), three games developed under Objective C (AirHockey, a goal shooting game and a military strategy game), a Tic Tac Toe type game for Android, one for Swift (Pairs), a Swift application with recipes and a personal finances management application for Android. For example, the application "Save your money", already available on the Market, started off like this:

"At first it was difficult because I knew absolutely nothing about programming, but now, after this project, I learned lots of things I have never heard of before. In the first part of this project, Filip (the mentor, author's note) started explaining to me what programming means, and we started writing code in pseudocode. Filip insisted very much on this part because this is the quickest way to learn the essentials. After we finished writing code in pseudocode, he started explaining to me what Java is using real life examples. We started writing code in Eclipse Luna, where Filip showed me the basics any programmer should know...", Alexandru Iuga, 9th grade student

For the children

But this was not all. In fact, the most significant results, as far as we are concerned, were obtained at a much more intimate level, both for the children and mentors involved in this project. These were changes one can only expect to achieve with very, very hard work as a result of a training experience, for example. We saw attitudes changing. And such changes ensure durable results: what the students and the mentors obtained as a result of the programme was not only limited to the results of the individual mentoring meetings, but has become a personal asset of each party involved. That is, we saw long lasting changes occurring, with effects on the long run.

For the children, this generally meant a change in the attitude towards learning and effort. And not only towards effort per se, but also towards the effort of those who stood by them during these months and guided them, an effort they became aware of and deeply appreciated. This type of result usually becomes a priceless asset for any developing child and is instrumental not only in the way they manage their learning and career, but also in how each of them makes his way through the world of social relationships.

And believe me, as a parent with long time experience with children from preschool age to university post-graduates, this change of attitude towards effort and perseverance is something quite biiig!!!! As soon as they were enrolled, the children knew that the support they are receiving also carries their responsibility to make an effort to create a programming product. And I emphasise this choice of words: to make an effort. As part of the programme's concept, the result was important, but less important than the process itself. The mentors have taken into account the children's potential and managed to focus the intervention on the children's next area of development, but never losing sight of their limits. They required a lot and gave a lot. And the currency was effort and involvement. From both sides. Sometimes the children had their doubts, and had their ups and downs, as one has during any learning experience. They had to do homework, had to work overtime and to meet deadlines... But they always had support when faced with difficulties and I think they learned something extremely valuable...to walk that extra mile. For example, Dani Pop, a 9th grade student, showed us that when there's a will, there's a way: "During computer science classes I worked in notepad++, and then I compiled the code at the company, since I had no Mac to compile the code."

Another effect of the programme I had anticipated, but not to its full extent (!), was that the learning experience the children went through at Telenav has turned out to be a complete occupational guiding intervention. All conditions were given ...and then some... The children had the opportunity to see for themselves, repeatedly, the typical work environment at an IT company, the typical tasks a programmer has to perform, as well as the social environment within an organisation, and they managed to become aware, through their interaction with their mentors, that this is the road they want to and can take.

Add to this all the fun they had while working alongside young programmers who taught them exactly what they wanted and needed to know, by means of perfectly customised ways adapted to their own learning pace, but also the satisfaction and pride that comes with the development of a programming product, and we have the wonderful recipe for the design of a true and meaningful learning experience.

"For me, this project meant a lot, because I really learned programming in the true meaning of the word, and not what Internet tutorials teach you. I worked at a real company and managed to master a very difficult programming language, Objective C. At the beginning of the project I had minimal knowledge of C, but my desire and my mentor's passion lead to surprising results. We developed a Clash of Clans type military strategy game using SpriteKit, an advanced technology developed by Apple for OpenGL type graphical engines, basically built on OpenGL. Another important feature of our game is that all information is parsed from JSON files, and nothing is hard-coded, at least in theory :). All in all, the ITBrainiacs project offered me an opportunity I never dreamed of: to become a true developer at only 15!", Daniel Pop, 9th grade student

"My experience at this company was unique. In addition to learning a lot, I also had fun and had many meetings with my mentors and programmers working at the company. I recommend this experience to every young person, because it is something truly unique. At the same time, we have to be aware that we are one step closer to this profession.", Alexandru Vădan, 7th grade student

For the mentors

Probably the most surprising effects of the ITBrainiacs programme were the things happened to the mentors from Telenav. The support provided for the children not merely to acquire programming skills, but, most importantly, to put them in practice by developing games and applications was a learning experience for the mentors, as well. A new and true one. The act of teaching itself is a constant act of learning that forces you to say the right things, at the right time and especially in the right way, to organise your knowledge, to contemplate their order, usefulness and addressability. Teaching involves another type of practice: responsibility. This responsibility made the mentors turn to their textbooks again, assess different methods and choose the ones that were best suited for the given student and the specific programming task, as well as to hand over not merely technical knowledge, but also to be supportive when fluctuations in motivation and emotions that come with learning occur. And this requires efficient communication, empathy and the ability to manage one's own thoughts and emotions. Because you are a model!

They managed these tasks brilliantly. I bow before them!

"As far as I'm concerned, the ITBrainiacs experience taught me first of all to tidy up my thoughts. I can hardly wait for the next edition and I would like to see more such projects organised" Mihai Costea, Telenav

"This was a learning experience for me, as well. I learned how to better express my thoughts, because I had to rephrase anything I wanted to explain in order to make it as easy to understand as possible. Paul was also delighted with this programme, he learned many things he would not have learned in school, and I'm sure that now, when this is over, his passion for programming has grown." Mihai Șerban, Telenav

Essentially, the ITBrainiacs programme was a learning experience built around positive emotions. It was built on commitment, passion and enthusiasm! And lots of fun!

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