Programming as a superpower: How Chilean teens use coding to ‘save the world’

Thanks to Fundación Kodea’s work, Chile has impressed the global community when it comes to teaching computer science in the region. Kodea’s campaign has resulted in students developing an oceanic probe to help fishermen and a Braille printer for the visually impaired, among other projects.

*You can read a Spanish version of this story here.

“I am not an expert, but I can solve some problems,” says Constanza Mazzey, 16. A student with a knack for coding, she joined a group at her high school in Coyhaique, a city in southern Chile, that developed an oceanic probe to detect water temperature and fish behavior. The device is intended to help the local fishing industry increase their catch.

Constanza Mazzey (right) with Javiera Aguilar, who won a 2019 digital talent contest for their oceanic probe.
(Photo courtesy of Constanza Mazzey)

“We wanted to create a tool that would allow our community fishermen to see data like temperature changes because their work is based on the species that are in the sea at that moment,” says Mazzey, a senior at Liceo Bicentenario Altos de MacKay.

In 2019, the oceanic probe project won a digital talent contest organized by Fundación Kodea, the main computer science education advocacy organization in Chile’s K-12 schools and global partner of Code.org. A visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was part of the award.

Mazzey, who during the school year leaves her family behind because there’s no high school in Port Raúl Marín Balmaceda, the island in the Chilean Patagonia where she lives, is considering applying to MIT and other U.S. universities. She lives in Coyhaique with a guardian family under a government residence program for rural students.

Promoting this kind of talent was what Mónica Retamal had in mind when she created Fundación Kodea in 2015 with the goal of making technology education in Chile more inclusive, focusing on widening access to children and young women.

Mónica Retamal (in blue) talking with students about their projects during an Hour of Code event in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of Fundación Kodea)

During the past five years, Fundación Kodea has led a computer science awareness campaign that brought the Hour of Code to Chile, reaching more than one million students. The campaign included a tutorial based on Condorito, a Chilean condor cartoon character that’s very popular throughout Latin America, and helped enhance the allure of coding for schoolchildren.

In 2019, Kodea also launched the Protectores del Planeta (Planet Protectors) tutorial, which addresses climate change and how to confront it. In it, children choose a planet-protector character and help them clean the ocean of plastic, prevent forest fires and recycle.

“That is why we say that programming is a superpower to save the world,” Retamal said during the program’s launch. “We know of many solutions created by young Chilean entrepreneurs, by schoolchildren who use technology at the service of sustainability.”

National Plan for Digital Languages

Four years ago, Fundación Kodea began sharing its plan to promote computer science in schools with then-presidential candidates to push for its inclusion among their campaign goals. Current President, Sebastián Piñera, has adopted many of Fundación Kodea’s ideas in the Ministry of Education’s National Plan for Digital Languages, introduced in 2019.

Children from Valparaíso schools pose during an Hour of Code event in the city’s DUOC UC campus in October 2019. (Photo courtesy of Fundación Kodea)

“We are convinced that computer science will allow children to develop skills that will help them to work in the future,” says Claudia Jaña, education manager at Fundación Kodea, which has trained nearly 6,000 teachers in computer science.

With the National Plan for Digital Languages, Chile became one of the few countries in Latin America to start a national plan that incorporates programming and computational thinking into the classroom.

Chilean school children during an Hour of Code activity. (Photo courtesy of Fundación Kodea)

The Foundation’s achievements have not gone unnoticed. Last year, in recognition of its pioneering efforts, Kodea won the Juscelino Kubitschek Visionaries Award given by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which included a $100,000 first prize.

Brailws, a braille printer

The closest curriculum subject to computer science in Chile is a 45-minute technology class that schools are required to teach once a week from first to sixth grade and twice a week from seventh to 12th grade. But this class is freely interpreted by schools and educators and often has little to do with computer science.

Randall Bierman did have a technology class at Liceo Bicentenario de Excelencia Polivalente San Nicolás, in Southern Chile’s Ñuble province, when he joined a group of students working on a braille printer for the visually impaired. His group won Los Creadores (The Creators), a digital talent award created by Fundación Kodea, in 2018, and is now seeking funding to start production of their printer under the name of Brailws.

From left to right, Randall Bierman with teammates Juan Eduardo Flores and Carlos Orellana. (Photo courtesy of Randall Bierman)

Bierman, now 19, is studying engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and plans to major in computer science. “Programming is about practice, more than analyzing concepts or studying theory, and one gets better at it, like in any other subject, by practicing,” he says. “Sooner or later, the skills will come.”

A Computer Science teacher in every school

In 2019, Kodea started a strategic alliance with BHP Foundation, funded by Australian mining giant BHP, that focused on a five-year plan to reinforce computer science content based on Code.org courses. This nationwide plan, IdeoDigital, was launched on Jan. 1 and began by developing the skills of “implementers,” who will in turn share the project with schools all over the country. “The plan’s main focus is the fundamentals of coding from first to sixth grade and includes training for teachers,” Jaña says. Fundación Kodea is translating content from Code.org to make it available to all teachers in Chile.

“The biggest attraction is that it is a free platform, very well thought out, and ideal to add to the school curriculum,” Jaña says. Teacher training begins with a two-day face-to-face session and is complemented by 25-hour online training based on the Code.org model.

The main goal is to make CS-experienced teachers available to every school in Chile to provide every student the opportunity to learn. The current challenge, however, is to raise awareness among school principals on the importance of computer science.

For Jaña, teaching computer science is akin to teaching English as a second language in Chile. It will provide students a critical skill to succeed in the labor market and making it available in all schools will help democratize Chile’s segregated school system, where kids in private schools can learn CS skills such as video game development while those in public schools cannot due to lack of resources.

But there’s a difference between learning a language versus learning computer science: “Unlike English, we have many children in Chile who handle technology very well,” she says. “But they are users. What we need is for these children to become developers.”

-Lara Sepúlveda-Machado, Code.org

Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.