Ridhwana Khan, Senior Software Engineer at Smile Identity, co-founded Kasi Maths in response to something she noticed: South Africa’s education system doesn’t set learners up well to access and thrive in tech and STEM-related careers. This is especially true for learners from underserved communities who don’t have much exposure to tech and experience language barriers in learning. This is why Ridhwana believes skilled professionals/developers have the ability and responsibility to help where they can.
We spoke to Ridhwana about how her non profit, Kasi Maths, works to address these issues by solidifying basic digital skills and knowledge, using a holistic learning environment that exposes students to STEM in the real world, and visual teaching that bridges language barriers.
Ridhwana went through university doing her CompSci degree, and noticed a trend that many young adults don’t get exposed to the options in tech early on, which means that they don’t necessarily know what they are going to be doing in the real world when they choose their career modules at university.
But it was only when Ridhwana entered the workplace that she realised theoretical training in software development often does not set up learners well enough for what it looks like in practice:
“That’s definitely where I found education lacks. It’s very theory-based: I can work from a textbook, but you’ve just rote learned the thing. In coding, you’re never going to learn code from memory, so you have to think of other ways of disseminating that knowledge.”
This is why she set up Kasi Maths, an after-school STEM enrichment program that takes traditional tech training and makes it more accessible to high school students. Ridhwana and her team acknowledge that under-resourced communities in particular have barriers to access when it comes to STEM (with a focus on tech) skills development, specifically because:
- These learners lack exposure to technology in general, which results in limited tech/scientific literacy, and not much awareness of the career potential through tech and through STEM, and
- These learners often experience language barriers, which is significant because tech/scientific vocabulary is predominantly founded within English.
Ridhwana set up Kasi Maths in a way that addresses these barriers by returning to basics: She focuses on building and solidifying foundational knowledge for learners in all the core competencies they will need to first access, and then excel at, a tech/STEM-related career. Her team also focuses on a holistic curriculum that exposes learners to tech in the real world, in order to make learning more practical and to show learners more career opportunities. Finally, Kasi Maths implements visual teaching to bridge any language barriers in learning and in teaching.
Here’s how her team goes about creating these kinds of environments:
Solidifying knowledge, and contextualising skills
Since many students at Kasi Maths don’t have much prior knowledge of tech software or hardware when they first start, Ridhwana says that the curriculum’s first term is an introduction to basic digital skills - like how to use a computer, how to use a keyboard, and how to browse the internet.
From there, Ridhwana says that students get a crash course in programming, both in software and hardware. This gives students the basics they need to understand the logic behind STEM and other coding concepts, even if they can’t code from memory, necessarily.
For the software component, Ridhwana uses Scratch because of its drag-and-drop functionality: “They don’t have to think about syntax yet, they don’t have to think about anything except problem solving. Once they’ve solved the problem on paper, they then move it into Scratch and drag and drop the interface.”
She also uses Micro:bits, which introduces the hardware component, and helps develop a holistic understanding of the world as a combination of hardware and software: “When they look at a light switch,” she explains, “we want them to understand the mechanisms behind it, because a light switch is a combination of hardware and software. Same with a car, for example.” This brings theory into the real world, and makes it easier for students to learn and later apply these concepts.
Teaching a holistic curriculum, as opposed to ‘only code’
Instead of stream-lining what students are taught at Kasi Maths, Ridhwana wants to expose students to as much as possible. “If I think back to my school days,” she explains. “I loved maths, but I didn’t know where I was going to use maths. So it was really difficult to see what my options were.”
Making the curriculum holistic means tying knowledge areas together and getting students to work on practical, real world examples. Ridhwana says this helps develop skills like problem solving and critical thinking, as well as develops an understanding of how the world works that students might not have had before. She illustrates this with an example of one of her lessons:
“Using a park distance control in the car, for example: As it goes back towards an obstacle, it starts beeping. What I do when I start a class is I’ll ask them, ‘Who thinks that they can build something like this?’ And most of them say, ‘No Ma'am, it’s way too difficult.’ Then I work with to calculate the distance to the obstacle using a little bit of mathematics; we then code that formula into the program; then, we hook it up to a Microbit board using a little bit of circuit understanding from physics. Now they have their hardware and their software talking to each other, and they’re actually building these things for themselves.”
This kind of classroom environment also enables Ridhwana to teach soft skills that expose them to what it’s like to enter the working world. This means students can take what they learn outside of the classroom, and apply it to other areas of their lives, setting them up well for any future career.
She uses those real-world demos as opportunities to get students to think about managing time and effective teamwork: “We teach them how to set up a to do list for the things they need to do, how they should set up their time in order to get everything done, how they should set goals for their projects, and how they should collaborate and communicate with each other while working on those things.”
Using visual teaching
Ridhwana has also created a visual learning environment in the Kasi Maths classrooms. This not only lowers any language barriers students have, but means it becomes easier to dissect almost any tech, science, or mathematics problems: “When you teach visually,” Ridhwana explains, “you can teach anything. If there’s a problem, and you actually take out the components and show them on a board how something works, then without even having to really explain too much you allow them to dissect that problem better, and for themselves.”
For instance, using the park distance control example, Ridhwana says she maps out all the components, and shows how the lights connect to a circuit board, for example. Breaking concepts down, she says, means you can lower the complexity of the English you have to use: “If you show them the different inputs you have, and the different outputs it produces, you don’t really need to explain that verbally.”
However, where concepts are too confusing, there are tutors who can translate for students in order to make sure the visual learning can be as effective as possible, so that language is not a barrier to them learning these vital skills. Language barriers are detrimental to learning because even if a concept is broken down into simple enough pieces, students will struggle to understand what’s being conveyed. It puts the responsibility of learning onto the student entirely.
Practical, transferable knowledge that creates real, holistic impact
If skilled professionals and developers - like Ridhwana and her team of tutors - can use their experience and knowledge to uplift students from under-served communities, they can help prepare young adults better for thriving in a tech environment, whether it’s a university or a workplace. In a country like South Africa, where Ridhwana believes much work still needs to be done to level up the education system, this kind of community action is critical.
Kasi Maths’ curriculum and specific teaching methods aim to engage tech skills and knowledge in a more practical, accessible way. Ridhwana’s experience has been that this helps students develop a more sustainable understanding of software development, and empowers them to use what they learn in software development, and apply it to any career they would like to pursue:
“It’s not about making students become coders, necessarily; it’s about showing them what’s out there, and empowering them to use what they learn in whatever way they want to.”
In this way, the impact that Ridhwana’s work has is not only felt in the tech industry, but on a community upliftment and grassroots level.