Coding workshops: building robots, self-esteem and new friendships

Teacher George Kalewis slams his hands on the table, and a little orange robot car nudges forward. We are in Athens, and a group of young people has just coded the robot’s sensors to react to sounds.

“Good work! Next, we’re going to code the robot car to detect a black line and to follow it. Does anyone need help?” Kalewis asks, and Michalis Vamvakaris, serving as assistant teacher for the day, circles around helping students.

In about fifteen minutes, everyone is done, and Kalewis moves to the driveways spread out on another table.

“Wow!” marvels Sofia, 17, when her car starts moving on command and obediently winds along the black driveway, all by itself.

Sofia is one of 40 young people taking part in the Code+Create workshops organised by Finn Church Aid in Athens from May to June. In addition to robotics, the workshops held once a week have focused on learning skills such as the basics of coding, image editing and 3D printing. Half of the participants are of Greek origin, while the other half have a refugee background.

“I already knew some of the basics of (programming language) Python, but here I’ve had the chance to learn much more in-depth. I think it’s wonderful that the group includes people with all sorts of backgrounds, because it’s good to get to know new people,” says Sofia.

Said, 18, agrees that it has been nice to make new friends. He arrived in Greece with his parents and six siblings a year ago from Afghanistan, where the life of the family had become too dangerous. They meant to continue to Germany where they had relatives, but their journey was cut short and they remained in Greece, where the family now awaits an asylum decision. At first, Said did not know anyone in Athens.

“It’s been hard getting to know Greek people, since not everyone speaks English. I’ve now started a Greek course at the summer university. When I heard of this programme, of course I wanted to join in. I enjoy studying very much.”

“Said, come here!” calls Michalis, 14, who lives outside Athens.

“It’s been great to get to speak English. At first I was shy, and my English wasn’t very good, but now it’s going well. It’s a good idea to include people from different backgrounds in the group. It helps us all to learn about new cultures,” says Michalis.

Michalis (on the left) and Sofia from Greece and Said from Afghanistan have become friends in the coding workshop. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis

Language posed the first challenge for the teacher as well, as the IT terminology, complicated enough as it is, was not familiar to everyone. At first, the group learned to make use of online translation programs, but after that, the students have been unstoppable.

“The most rewarding part has been seeing how eager the young people are to learn. As the course progresses, they’ve become much more confident,” says Kalewis.

As his day job, he teaches robotics at a Greek university. Initially, he was a little nervous about teaching young people from different backgrounds, but he soon learned that he needn’t have worried. The young people got to know each other, and according to Kalewis, they are now like one big family.

“The youngsters from Greece now find it easier to understand those from different circumstances. They are all young, but they come from different countries. The most important thing I can teach them is not robotics; it’s ethics.”

The break over, Kalewis calls the group together again. Sofia, Said and Michalis get seated next to each other.

“Pay attention. We are now going to teach the robots to communicate with each other. We’ll turn some of the robots into receivers and others into transmitters,” Kalewis introduces the task.

The group follows closely. They all know much more about receiving messages from others than they did when the workshops started a month ago.

Teacher George Kalewis believes that young people from different backgrounds will understand each other better after the coding workshops. Photo: Socrates Baltagiannis

Text: Noora Jussila
Translated by: Leena Vuolteenaho

Code+Create workshops are organised by Finn Church Aid together with Greek NGO GFOSS – Open Technologies Alliance.