Volunteering at AddisCoder!

This past summer I spent a month in Ethiopia in the capital Addis Ababa volunteering to teach coding to high school students from all over Ethiopia 🇪🇹.

To say that it was one of the best summers of my life would be an understatement. It is incredibly rewarding to watch students go from not knowing much about coding to writing code for stacks and queues towards the end!

6 reasons why you should spend your summer volunteering for AddisCoder!

  1. You will get to teach some of the most brilliant students in Ethiopia. Students will come from different backgrounds, different parts of Ethiopia and you get to learn so much from the students too!
  2. It’s really inspiring and interesting to work with people from diverse backgrounds in Computer Science ranging from Natural language processing, bioinformatics, systems. You get to spend time and learn from all these amazing folks!
  3. You get to see Ethiopia! Ethiopia is an incredible country with really warm, helpful people and delicious food! You get to explore Addis Ababa and Ethiopia during the weekends with the locals!
  4. Spending a month in another country can be really prohibitive for some people. Your lodging and flights can be paid for! You can also get a need-based stipend.
  5. Computer Science is not a glamorous field in Ethiopia. Most bright students go on to study medicine or other kinds of engineering at university. This owes mostly to the lack of resources and awareness. You can influence someone’s life positively and that’s an immense privilege to have!
  6. Even if you have been a TA at university before, this experience will be very different. The program is more intensive than a university course, and you have to motivate students so that they don’t get disheartened by the steep learning curve. Maybe you also discover the joy of programming towards the end of AddisCoder!

What is AddisCoder?

AddisCoder is a 4 week intensive program in Ethiopia that teaches high school students basics of Python and fundamentals of data structures and algorithms.

How are the students selected?

Since AddisCoder is still in its nascent stages, the process varies from one year to the next. This year, around 140 students were chosen by the Ministry of Science and Education of Ethiopia and the rest ~40 were chosen by an application process.

How are the Teaching Assistants selected?

There is an application process, where you are asked about your background and motivations to apply to AddisCoder. After your application goes through a screening round, there is an interview round where you are asked basic programming and algorithm questions. There is a balance between the number of Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian TAs (about 20 each). This year there were around 240~ applicants out of which ~40 were chosen.

How is the program structured?

The program is divided into 5 weeks. Week 0 is the prep week. We setup about 60 computers, booted Ubuntu onto the computers, and prepared Jupyter notebooks for the coming 4 weeks. The syllabus is python basics and recursion for Week 1 and 2. Week 3 is about searching, sorting, stacks and queues. Week 4 is about Dynamic Programming. A constant theme throughout the weeks is motivating students and generating their interest in Computer Science.

Why are the students participating in AddisCoder?

This is a fairly divisive question as some of the students participate in AddisCoder because they have heard about programming or have programmed before and want to learn more about it. From a survey, 39 students had previous experience with some programming language(most popular seemed to be HTML). The ministry selects students based on their Math and Physics scores in school, so some of the students participate not knowing anything about programming or Computer Science in general. It’s a mixed bag, and the application process will hopefully be revised to account for some interest in Computer Science.

How will AddisCoder affect the participants in what they do?

From the survey taken at the end of AddisCoder, 58 students (from a total of 156 students) reported that their chosen major in college would be Computer Science. Out of those 58 students, 39 changed their chosen major from something else to Computer Science! While the number could be better, the program introduced a lot of students to Computer Science and convinced them to change their major!

How does AddisCoder help with Computer Science’s lack of prestige in Ethiopia?

The thing with the prestige of Computer Science is it’s a cat and mouse problem. There are not a lot of role models because enough people aren’t studying Computer Science and because there aren’t enough people studying Computer Science, not enough examples of success in the field. AddisCoder helps to fix the cat and mouse problem by inviting people who have had success in the field for lectures, by exposing students to Computer Science and showing that it’s not rocket science and helping students have contacts in the field who can answer their questions and show them that success is possible! Out of 156 students surveyed at the end of AddisCoder, 140 said that they would recommend AddisCoder to their peers! :)

Some other musings:

  • It absolutely sucks that the computer programming world is all English. For some of the students, they only really started learning English after the 7th grade. Explaining things like types and functions is difficult because there are no equivalents in Amharic.
  • Not all students have a personal computer or a laptop, which means that some students get extra time to practice vs others who do not. In a perfect world, we would have the means to give everyone a personal computer so they could go through the material in their own time. Outside of AddisCoder, 35 students(out of a total of 156) don’t have access to a computer, and 80 students don’t have access to internet.
  • People went above and beyond their duty to ensure the students had a great experience! This dedication is really inspiring ^_^ Some TAs took extra office hours at the dorms when students were not able to understand certain concepts like recursion, etc!

P.S. If you want to apply, the applications for 2020 edition of AddisCoder are open! You can find more information here. The Teaching Assistants are selected on a rolling basis so you should apply sooooon :)

Written on October 14, 2019