Prof. Alvin Su sets up coding camp at rural school to open up opportunities for growth

  • 2018-05-18
  • Tseng - Shung  Yang

 Alvin Su is a professor of computer science at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. As a child, he was a slow learner, but he rediscovered self-confidence~ thanks to the support of a willing teacher. Now, by organizing a computer programming camp, he's paying forward that generosity to rural students, hoping to support them on a new path to personal growth.
Taimali, Taitung is one of Taiwan’s many small towns suffering from an exodus of young people. But on this cold day, shouts of excitement ring through the town’s streets.

It’s a fun and rowdy scene as these children try to move remote-control cars into position to pop balloons with a pin on a robotic arm. The activity is part of a camp put on by engineers from some of Taiwan’s top tech firms, who lead groups of students through a series of exercises that sometimes stretch late into the night.

More than 40 people are crammed into this small hotel room, where they’re discussing how to use games to teach students how to code. Alvin Su, wearing black-rimmed glasses, is a professor of computer science and information engineering at National Cheng Kung University in Tainan. He’s brought these other engineers to Taimali to pass on their collective programming expertise to a new generation.

Prof. Alvin Su
NCKU Computer Sci. and Information Engineering
We’re in an age that’s completely changing rural areas. Our work lets us come to these areas. A programmer doesn’t need to go to Taipei, or Hsinchu, or Silicon Valley. They can touch the whole world from right here.

But convincing these excitable elementary school students to sit in front of a computer and write code isn’t an easy job. So the members of the team designed a game to teach kids the basics of coding. 

Chou Chen-ying
Programming Camp Student
Learning coding is like putting together a puzzle, because you’re just putting blocks of code together one by one.

Chiu Yun-jing
Programming Camp Student
Finishing it gives you a sense of accomplishment, and you learn something too.

Chuang Chi-hung
Programming Camp Leader
A lot of students might not have the opportunity at school to find affirmation. But when they opened their computers at noon after having lunch, all they did was write programs on the computer. 

Using the game to introduce the children to programming logic, the camp leaders also give them a chance to work with one another. Alvin Su says the teaching method has a lot to do with his own experiences.

Prof. Alvin Su
NCKU Computer Sci. and Information Engineering
Because I was born prematurely, my health wasn’t good, and it took me a long time to learn how to walk and talk. 

As a young student, Su had trouble keeping up with his homework. He was lucky, though, to meet a third-grade teacher who took him in and helped him gain self-belief.

Now a teacher himself, Su doesn’t hesitate to lend help to a student in need, going right over to walk them through a problem.

Prof. Alvin Su
NCKU Computer Sci. and Information Engineering
I had a teacher who helped me through the challenges of my youth, and who made me into this person. I’m grateful to him, and I hope that my own child will be able to thank me in 30 years for having done that. We just need a few people like this to contribute to society.

The kids attending the camp are from a place in Taitung called the Kid’s Bookhouse. About 80 or 90 percent of the children there either have working parents, are raised by their grandparents, or have only one parent with a low income. After school, teachers at the Bookhouse help them do their homework and give them dinner. After training the teachers, Alvin Su walks the students through how to write code, introducing them to a new opportunity for personal growth.

Liu Kuo-hsuan
Kid’s Bookhouse Teacher
For those in the countryside, distance is a significant barrier to getting to the city, and if you can stay at home and use programming to solve problems, I think that’s a feasible option. So I want to learn coding in order to help them give it a shot.

Chen Chiu-rung
Kid’s Bookhouse Teacher
Will some of the kids here become programmers? I don’t know, but if I don’t give them a chance, and they don’t try, how will they know if it’s a direction they may want to go in?

At the camp’s graduation ceremony, the camp leaders announce each team’s score and hand out prizes. The student team members did their best to build on one another’s unique skills, and the team leaders receive a warm thank-you. 

Watching how the kids hesitate at first, but become enthusiastic coders in the end, Alvin Su has learned that the definition of “rural” doesn’t have to hinge on geography. A willingness to invest one’s resources can give those in the countryside a new lease on life, a mission which his team is carrying out, one town at a time.