Helping children to embrace technology – NEENE GICHAARA

When Neene Gichaara, Tinker Education manager, was pursuing her Master’s degree in global policy at the University of Sheffield in England, her dream was to graduate, come back to her

  • PublishedJanuary 31, 2019

When Neene Gichaara, Tinker Education manager, was pursuing her Master’s degree in global policy at the University of Sheffield in England, her dream was to graduate, come back to her motherland Kenya and work with community-based organisations.

“My favourite course was Global Childhoods taught by Dr. Afua Twum Danso-Imoh. She raised issues of the vast differences of education around the world, marginalization and children’s rights,” says Gichaara.

She was impressed by the mode of study in England and wished the same could be replicated in our education system.

Gichaara reveals that immediately after finishing her studies, she was lucky enough to secure a job as a marketing manager with Tinker Education before being promoted to manage the East Africa centre based in Nairobi. Tinker Education is a tech centre that teaches and exposes children to sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The system is developed by Korean Technology Company EMCAST. Kenyan instructors run the Nairobi centre and this is where Gichaara eventually found herself.

“A friend told me about it in 2016. I did a research about the organisation and knowing well the challenges haunting Kenyan education system, I felt I needed to be part of the team changing the education landscape in the country and East Africa. I was convinced in my heart that STEM is what Kenyan children needed as it will help them compete globally. Tinker Education equips students with the relevant skills,” she says, adding, “Times have changed and people need to prepare their children for the global market. Giving your children quality education is no longer an option. It is the best investment you can make and Tinker Education is here to help you achieve that.”

Initially known as Stride System Kenya, Gichaara discloses the Tinker Education was meant to be included in the education curriculum so that every Kenyan child could reap its benefits. However, they were unable to realise their dream due to hitches at the Ministry of Education. This did not dampen their spirit and they looked for other ways to make the system available to as many students as possible.

“When we realised it wasn’t possible to include the course in the curriculum, we tried to partner with some private schools but again it was not working. That’s when we started our own centre in 2016,” she explains.

She points at government regulation and lengthy procedures when establishing a corporate body as the toughest challenge they faced while registering Tinker Education in the country.

Inculcating the best practices in learning

“At Tinker Education, students are not only taught STEM but also application of computer science (coding) to explore and create. We also offer digital literacy and programming courses through fun and interactive animation projects, science programmes with exciting experiments, IGSCE mathematics tuition as well as process art and guided reading weekday classes for three to four year olds,” she explains, adding their aim is to teach technology to the younger generation.

In line with best practices, Gichaara says that the centre trains children to learn and understand and doesn’t follow the traditional practice of testing in order to graduate to the next level. Tinker STEM Education is also designed to realise student-centered learning and encourage exploration with hands-on physical computing and unplugged activities with the purpose of nurturing children and the youth for global competitiveness.

Currently, the centre has 61 children but in different stages. Each stage has different sessions depending with the number of students. Usually, each session accommodates not more than 12 students hence making it easier for students to interact with trainers. The students also get fully involved in practicals. “The Tinker classroom environment gives emphasis to high engagement in learning in order to establish: communication of ideas, collaboration of skills, creativity and critical thinking throughout the engineering design process,” observes Gichaara.

“The centre trains children from the age of five to 16 in different stages. Tinker follows the English curriculum, which encourages practical teaching approach to teach its science programmes,” she remarks and reiterates that children from developing countries should have the same quality of education and capability to achieve as much as those in the developed countries.

Kids between the ages of five and seven start with Scratch Junior and Life Science, which are basics of electricity and magnetism. They also learn how to use computers and basic coding which is from left to right. In the next stage, they learn advanced coding, which is from top to bottom – the common way of coding.

After stage two, trainers usually advice parents on what they feel the child is good at hence helping them to know the way forward. “After stage two, there are those who will specialise in computer science and others in engineering or even life science,” she says.

Gichaara divulges that their teachers are well qualified as besides being graduates of accredited institutions, they undergo the STEM training with EMCAST. “Not all our teachers have education background but we usually train them before starting the job. The most important thing we look out for when hiring teachers is passion. Training complements it. For the young children, the instructors are trained on class management. We guide the children through repetition and reinforcement rather than disciplining them,” she offers.

Tinker Education has introduced another programme, K-Math, to provide math solutions for students in Grade 1-12. She notes that math education is now more important than ever due to the 4th industrial revolution. However, many students find math difficult. Due to the nature of the subject, a small gap in math skills can cause a chain effect. “K-Math is a Korean teaching technique developed by Kenyans that combines American and British curriculums for Kenyan pupils. It uses the South Korean teaching technique, that is, innovative teaching methods and application of technology all the way,” she explains.

The programme starts enrolling students in grade three and it runs after school on Wednesday and Friday from 4 to 6:15pm. This programme is separated from the STEM programme. Their aim is to find the weak points in a child’s problem solving skills and to improve mathematics scores at school.
There are six staff members under the STEM programme and seven staff members under K-Math. Gichaara remarks that Tinker is not only for those who want to pursue sciences and technology related courses but also for arts students as well. She adds that children need not be gifted or super intelligent for them to pursue science and technology related courses as is commonly believed. “We enhance the learner’s natural talents by developing their 21st century skills in critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning and communication skills to succeed in career and life,” she says.

Gichaara says that although for the time being they don’t have children with special needs, their system can accommodate them. “We have a special needs trained teacher for those interested. We also borrow a lot form our mother company and they help us approach any unique case,” she says.
Tinker Education is currently in partnership with Kings Hill Academy in Baringo County education and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) for the digital literacy. Their aim is to attract more children with their programmes, be part of curriculum reforms and in future open an adult learning school.

Their classes have flipped programmes where they have lecture days, mission days and physical computing day for the sake of a child’s easy understanding. Classes run on Wednesdays for home schooling students and Saturday for students in regular schools.

Gichaara points out that the programme has three terms in a year at a cost of Ksh24,000 per term. They also have annual camps where they showcase students’ projects.

She says that Tinker Education is the solution for students to perform well in Kenya’s new education system. “Under the new Kenyan education system (2-6-3-3-3), learners will not sit exams but will be evaluated through Continuous Assessment Tests (CATs) on the skills acquired as opposed to cramming for exams as has been the case. Tinker Education enables learners to develop beyond academics and also focus on how best they can use their specific talents to make a living,” she shares.

Although they have only one centre in Nairobi, they are planning to open more branches in East Africa as the demand for their programmes increases.

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