Jun 10, 2019

The Importance of Learning by Playing


ew things teach us more than fun. Feeling that everything is a game, and that we have some autonomy on our preferences about what we do. This makes us have to find the limits on our own, and at other times, thanks to the guidance of a person in charge.

The first time I saw television was back in 1961, at night and standing on a sidewalk, looking through the window of the main business that sold TVs in my hometown of Gálvez, Santa Fe, in Argentina. This was possible as long as there was good atmospheric propagation, since the broadcasting of the signal depended on it.

It should be noted that watching television was a much quieter experience than the current one, and that its feasibility was due to technological advances that were remarkable for the time.

I was in second grade, and being able to see these technological advances aroused in me a huge curiosity, as I wanted to learn more about what was behind that screen with cathode-ray tubes (CRT) at a 90 degree angle. To observe and understand the insides of these circuits, sockets, valves and cables that brought what seemed like incredible images to people.

Philco advertising from a magazine in 1960, which emphasized a chassis with heat dissipation, to prevent it from breaking down due to overheating.

There was such excitement about TVs at the time, that shop owners knew they had to engage with customers and share some of the novelty surrounding them. Such was the case with Don Aníbal Mazzucchelli, a partner in the local TV shop and a tireless member of the technicians guild. He encouraged me to begin of dismantling and reassembling electronic components to understand their functioning. After all, I had pestered him with questions about the TVs for some time.

The first thing I was able to build was a radio with a frequency bridge and then a transistorized audio amplifier, mounted on a perforated pertinax plate. A few years went by until I managed to buy the first TV book from Algarra and Rodriguez, and I was able to get Don Aníbal to let me play with some old television sets.

This book was for me the main source for understanding something that I was passionate about and that involved a great deal of complexity.

I think that happened in 1967, when I was in my second year of the Industrial School program. They had already started broadcasting the channels of Rosario and Santa Fe, and that meant there was no need to wait until night to see something behind the usual signal noise, which at times covered the image. I must have ruined many transistors and several other components until I learned the basics. Years later when I completed secondary school, and after reading and studying several circuits, I started to repair the first valve TVs.

I remember that while I was in military service, I wanted to appear as "technically savvy" with Lieutenant Colonel of the Military District, whose TV had a punctured high voltage loop. So I said I was able to fix it. On a very wet day, cutting the CRT anode wire, I got such an electric shock that I fell to the ground and felt pain on my arm for two days. But I put up with it, I did not say anything and I continued with the task until I fixed it, and left it impeccable. What ajoy! I felt like nothing could stop me.

So I continued to learn until the end of 1977, when I achieved one of my most sought-after distinctions, which was to obtain the Philips Official Service designation. This allowed me to repair TVs and provide associated services under the representation of the Dutch brand. Thanks to this, I could also participate in all the color TV courses that were dictated by a technician brought directly from The Netherlands, who dazzled everyone with his knowledge and simplicity. There was not much expertise in the technological advances of Philips at that time in Argentina. This was on the eve of the 1978 World Cup.

Daniel Passarella lifting the World Cup trophy after winning 3-1 against the Netherlands. Dark times for Argentine society, but technologically, like with all the World Cups, there were significant improvements for TV broadcasts.
But everything has changed a lot since then and the engineering that allowed such a big difference in communications, based on complex chassis, today is better expressed in computer systems that require programming to continue generating value on a global scale. Understanding how this works means to be able to think in the way that most impacts our lives, whether or not one is willing to dedicate their professional career to it.

This used to be the reasoning behind offering classes of Mathematics in educational institutions. The difference is that if one wanted to apply that knowledge directly in the workplace, the options would be increasingly specific and reduced. The main motivation to send students to a Mathematics Olympiad was to increase the prestige of the institution, which was key in obtaining political approval or the necessary budget to guarantee their further development.

Instead, today the motivation should be to integrate future generations into a language that we speak more and more in the world, with its different "dialects" that are the different programming languages. For this, Holberton is a pilot project aimed at teaching programming for children who attend the second grade of primary school, with ages between 7 and 8 years old, at no cost for the participants.

Seldom in my path as an entrepreneur have I felt that a project motivated me like this, perhaps because I remember the excitement that was previously generated in Mariano (my youngest son who now presides over Interlink) by having access to a PC connected to the Internet when he was still a child. It was his idea of ​​creating Holberton.

We started at the beginning of last year by purchasing our first 10 Kano kits, an innovative transparent computer hardware that the kids assemble and use when they begin the course. Kano is a device that was designed for children to learn by playing, with simplicity and increasing difficulty, something that they are passionate about.

The assembly and configuration is the first step. Then, commands are used to program  tasks such as drawings and animations, something that stimulates creativity while preparing them to understand programming languages that are used in today's workplaces worldwide.

Because it is an extra-curricular project, we felt that we needed to search for a physical space different to the formal education establishments. So I immediately thought about the local library, the same one where so many times I went as an elementary and high school student, to get the information that would help me complete tasks and practical work. It was gratifying to see how quickly Edit Candelero, who presides over the Library, loved the idea and got the approval of the board to use the space.

Then we made contact with Belén Cortese, a laborious teacher of primary and secondary levels, and also a computer science teacher, who did not take long to join the project. Counting already with the kits, the physical place and the teacher, the last remaining task was to spread the idea and get the students. Thanks to the support of several institutions and companies that joined to help, we were able to start the first experience with excellent results.

For the next intakes we were overwhelmed by the number of requests for student registrations. Thanks to the support of the local Municipality we could count on the contribution of the additional fees for the teacher to dictate another class to another 10 children, selected by a draw before a notary public, within the group that had been left out of the first call.

At the end of last year (2018), the first course that lasted for one semester was completed and 18 participants of the initial 20 finalized the coursework. The kids closed the year with a special class where they could show their parents what they learned. They were then given a diploma and a gift in recognition of their participation.

Students try different techniques with the assistance of Professor Belén Cortese, to advance through different units (levels), which incrementally require more knowledge to complete.

In this second year (2019) we added four new kits and a new multiple battery charger. Thanks to this we have 28 new students who attend the first level, in addition to the initial 18 that now attend the second level. In this way we will have 46 students who will one day possibly become programmers, or at least will be able to understand and edit code, something as essential in the near future as it is today to be able to work with spreadsheets or text-editing applications.

Therefore, we fervently hope that very soon the Ministry of Education of our province adheres to the commitment of the Federal Council of Education and subscribes to resolution 343/18, whereby they commit themselves to advance in a digital education plan, in such a way that programming and robotics are compulsory subjects. We need this so Holberton can evolve from the pilot experience to the Connected Learning program, which would transversally insert our classes in the school curriculum, or at least add individual subjects of formal education that contain these teachings.

We need to do this and encourage other initiatives in more locations, in order to contribute to the quality of education, and a future with greater options for prosperity for next generations.

If we can make a bigger effort out of Holberton, surely we can provide an experience that will remain in the memory of these children, as a game that gave them the first tools to grow with a focus on new technological challenges. Using ideas linked to the skills with which they will have to develop, which will surely be a decisive factor in their exciting future.

-Raúl Malisani