The people who attended the 2016 Annual Gulu Technology Camp found a doorway to future that they had never seen before -- who knows where it will lead them?
Imagine a camp for 10 to 18 year-olds that combines robotics, microcomputers, pcDuino, video game design with Unity, self-defense training with an international kickboxer, Samsung's virtual reality gear, Android app design, musical performances, quadcopters, and Legos. Now imagine this camp took place in previously civil-war-torn northern Uganda.
(Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
Just to make things interesting, throw in a small documentary crew and a large group of technically savvy instructors who wandered the grounds amongst the energetic students. Finally, add to all of this the fact that almost half of the camp's 100+ students were blind. Even if you have an extremely active imagination and you can wrap your head around these foundational facts, I can guarantee that you can't imagine the amount of sheer joy, inquisitiveness, and boisterous energy that inhabited Gulu High School in the form of children during the 2016 Oysters & Pearl's Annual Technology Camp.
Innovation is the number one goal of the Annual Tech Camp (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
Last year, during camp setup, we were greeted by a black mamba in the boy's bathroom. This year, we had a much more pleasant, although equally unexpected, animal visit. A fledgling White Faced African Owl was discovered by the askari (school guard) in the first days of camp and promptly appointed the camp's mascot. Dubbed "Tula" by the camp Director and Sponsor, Sandra Washburn, her brief daytime appearances added to the air of excitement as the camp instructors unpacked laptops, pcDuinos, sensors, monitors, motors, Samsung smart phones, Lego kits, Oculus Rift headsets, and a ton of other intriguing technology!
It's a beautiful solid two weeks of technology bliss for instructors and students alike (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
We had a total of less than thirty students signed up on the morning of the first day. Worried glances and raised eyebrows quickly gave way to newfound pride as students poured in from far and wide over the next three days. We even had to turn some latecomers away with encouragement to show up early next year. A total of forty different Ugandan schools were represented in the camp's final student population. The sighted students split into three different tracks -- Video Game Design, Foundational Robotics, and Specialized Robotics. The fourth class section at the camp was comprised of the blind and sight-impaired students who pursued a more classical academic program coupled with things like using JAWS, a program to help blind people use computer applications to make spreadsheets and navigate the internet. Time was also spent on beauty and cosmetics tips for the young blind women, programming in Outlook, musical performance, and self-defense training with world renowned kickboxer Eric Onen.
Video Game Design was led by Americans Carl Twarog and Candice Fondville from East Carolina University along with Adeline Tushabe, a freelance developer who works out of Kampala. With the help of a few other instructors, the students developed games in the freeware software called Unity using C#. Everyone was introduced to game design by creating a 3D island populated with trees, grass, water, and coins. Students also created characters that moved around the island gathering coins. After creating this simple game, they were encouraged to alter the skins of the environment as well as the parameters of their characters' movements, resulting in characters capable of leaping mountains in a single bound. Students also created a 2D platform game before choosing one of the two games to further develop for the rest of the camp. The vehicle of game design tends to crinkle the corners of kids' eyes as they smile. Shhhhhh, don't tell them they are developing the industry-ready skills their parents ask about when picking up their children at the end of the camp!
Some students were really excited! (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
Next door, my friend Victor Kawagga from Fundi Bots led second year students in the Specialized Robotics class. There we used text-based programming to blink LEDs and take sensor readings. On the one hand this was nothing new; I've been teaching workshops like that for years, but we were not using laptops or desktops... imagine an overgrown landscape of microcomputers with tendril like cables overflowing over desks and outlets jammed with no less than fourteen or fifteen extension strips all daisy-chained together. (No! I'm just kidding, there's a guy who goes around making sure people wear safety glasses and put comments in their code and I don't want to get in trouble with that guy.)
The pcDuino microcomputer was a great alternative to buying more laptops as the camp expands and a great experience for everyone involved. The microcomputer has two different frequencies for both ADC and PWM functions, so I found myself leading a discussion about data resolution as it pertains to measuring large trucks vs. bicycles and passion fruit vs. jackfruit with an infrared distance sensor. By the end of the discussion, the whole class understood analog comparator circuit theory and the application of using the 12-bit ADC resolution to measure the weight of passion fruits (since they are smaller) and the 6-bit ADC circuit to measure jackfruit (since they are larger). We also covered triggering system processes inside of the Arduinoish (the pcDuino's name for its flavor of Arduino) IDE by using sensors and the mplayer software to play mp3 and mp4 files, resulting in countless student heads bobbing to local and not-so-local music. I always find it so interesting to discover what really gets people into technology.
Some not so much (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
In the Foundational Robotics track, a soft-spoken instructor named Mackenzie and his cohorts introduced students to programming, as well as sensors and actuators using pcDuino's flavor of Scratch. The pcDuino is similar to a Raspberry Pi but with a System on Chip, an onboard ADC, and a similar pinout format to Arduino, which -- when coupled with the pcDuino flavor of the Arduino IDE -- allows for easy Arduino compatible shield integration. We worked on simple concepts such as variables, if statements, and iteration using the drag-and-drop programming environment as well as some silly off-screen activities that I have developed over years of teaching technology. The funny thing about being silly and awkward for a moment in a technology classroom environment is that people expect seriousness, so these moments catch them off-guard and tend to stick in their biological memory registers. After some time working on the basics and integrating LEDs and infrared sensors into the Scratch code, we moved on to exploring animation by making a cartoon frog stick out its tongue. After establishing this concept, we went on to explore variables, state machine theory and 3D perspective by creating a simple driving simulator, completed with a sensor for the steering wheel. It wasn't all as serious as I make it sound, I promise.
Gulu, Uganda, seems like an unlikely place to first use virtual reality (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
All of the classes took time after sunset to learn how to do things like use Android App Inventor, write HTML, use Linux, and visit the Art and Gaming Room. This was definitely the sweetest room at the camp -- that's why I capitalized it in this way. The three instructors were boisterous, inclusive, had a ton of fun, and were obviously the coolest people at the camp due to their constant proximity to things like virtual reality headsets, giant piles of Legos, Chibitronics, VIDEO GAMES, drawing, circuit scribe, VIDEO GAMES, Snap Circuits, quad-copters, balsa wood gliders, and VIDEO GAMES. Also a lot of VIDEO GAMES were played. It was nice to give the students a break from coding and allow them to goof around while being social. Everyone, regardless of experience with technology, was wonderfully surprised by the Virtual Reality (VR) headset, and it was truly a surreal environment for me to first become acquainted with this technology.
At the end of the camp, the students presented their innovations (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
I will most likely never give any talk quite as well as the one I did in this Specialized Robotics class ever again. Students were actually asking questions and internalizing how they could use the skills in their own career paths! Their smiling faces filled with eagerness to take on the daunting task of creating a product and starting a company. I tried to be careful to never shy away from the fact that it would be an arduous path filled with all the difficulties of not only engineering and testing, but also marketing, production, and customer service. By the end of the talk, however, people seemed more resolute than before and definitely more informed as we outlined each step and connected the industry concepts to their world of Bobi Wine, kikomando, and rural Uganda.
Yes, there was exuberance and the dreaded "selfies" were taken (Source: Linz Craig, Ampeire Dorah, and Jacob Odur)
It was truly a magical experience for me and many others. The team was the best I have ever worked with to date, and I know that many lifelong friendships were formed over those two weeks. In the final evening, as the instructors cut the cakes, countless selfies were taken, certificates bestowed, and people all over the campus danced to music both Ugandan and American, I could only wonder somewhat tiredly at the boundless energy that all of the kids and many of the instructors displayed. The people who attended the 2016 Annual Gulu Technology Camp found a doorway to future that they had never seen before -- who knows where it will lead them?