Underprivileged kids become inventors at Arus Academy

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Academy teaches 21st century skills to underpriviledged students in Bukit Mertajam.Academy teaches 21st century skills to underpriviledged students in Bukit Mertajam.Arus Academy teaches 21st century skills to underpriviledged students in Bukit Mertajam.

Could a small moving device with sensors be as good as a seeing-eye dog? This was a question that struck the students at Arus Academy, and they set out to find out.

After experimenting, they came up with a device that beeped whenever it encountered an obstacle as it glided in front of visually-impaired people. It works!

It’s not exactly ready for market, of course. Far from it. It was a class experiment by teenagers from underprivileged backgrounds who joined the after-school programme in Arus Academy.

“They were amazing!” said Alina Amir, one of the co-founders of Arus Academy.

This was their first batch of students. Arus Academy was set up this year by four young Malaysians who were formerly with Teach for Malaysia under its two-year teaching fellowship programme.

It began as an ad-hoc project.

Alina had provided after-school tuition classes at the low-cost flats near the school while her colleague David Chak ran an after-school coding class.

After the fellowship was over, they decided to merge their efforts to create a permanent and more sustainable after-school teaching programme for underprivileged children.

They realised the gap in the education system in imparting 21st century skills. The wealthier families can fill this gap with private classes but the underprivileged families can’t.

David Chak, Daniel Russel, Alina Amir and Felicia Yoon

David Chak, Daniel Russel, Alina Amir and Felicia Yoon

And so, Arus Academy was set up by David, 25, and Alina, 27, who are now teachers in the government service. Their other two partners, Felicia Yoon, 25, and Daniel Russel, 26, are full-time in Arus Academy.

The academy is housed in a shoplot in Bukit Mertajam, Penang where it holds classes three nights a week for 20 students aged 15 to 17. They teach skills such as coding and programming, and how to use these skills to make things.

“We want to inspire them to become inventors instead of just users,” Alina said. “We emphasise the solving of problems. The kids come up with ideas, and we work with them to create a solution using technology.”

The reason it’s in Bukit Mertajam is because Alina and Daniel are teaching in a school there.

Besides that, the children there are already familiar with technology as they grew up seeing the electronics factories in their backyards. Alina hopes they will be inspired to see greater opportunities in the tech field beyond assembly line jobs.

Its first three-month semester has just ended, and in that time, the kids made the guide robot for the blind and a security drone. They also gave a presentation to their parents, TED style, at a graduation ceremony.

“We had the graduation ceremony so the parents could see their children present their projects,” said Felicia.

Some of the parents were astounded to see their children speaking confidently in English. This was particularly gratifying as some students had to drop out of the programme earlier because their parents felt that it was a distraction from their studies.

Arus Academy’s second semester will build on the foundation module, with the same students participating. It later plans to run different modules for different batches of students.

It has come a long way since it started with a RM50,000 grant from the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre, and also recently won a Social Enterprise award from the British Council.

This has boosted the spirits of this youthful team but they realise that they cannot rely on grants if they want to create a big social impact.

Thus, to generate income, they run camps for students from privileged families, using the project-based Arus curriculum but truncated into a shorter timeframe.

It has also just completed drawing up modules for the Education Ministry, and training teachers to create a more project-based learning experience for Year Six and Form One students in digital technology.

“The pilot phase will be rolled out in 24 schools in nine states,” said Felicia.

These are some of the ways that it generates the funds to keep Arus Academy sustainable in the long run, to benefit as many children as they can. Its focus will always be underprivileged children.

“We don’t see us stopping yet!” said Alina.

A student presenting his project to the parents at the graduation ceremony.A student presenting his project to the parents at the graduation ceremony.A student presenting his project to the parents at the graduation ceremony.

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