If you live in Nithari, chances are that the children of the labourers who built your new apartment, of the rickshaw puller who ferries you home from the nearest metro station, and of the housemaid who lives in the nearby basti, are quietly learning to program the Raspberry Pi. Vinay Chaddha, an embedded electronics professional, has been teaching teenaged residents of the settlement of migrant labourers located in Noida, a suburb of Delhi, to get their hands dirty on the credit card-sized single board computer.
A Raspberry Pi computer assembled and connected to a TV screen
In May this year, when Chaddha started teaching around 20 students, all of them pupils of the local municipal school, they had no knowledge of computer programming. He started acquainting them with the rudiments of Python, Scratch, Linux and Internet surfing using his own laptops, monitors and other equipment. Chaddha bought five Raspberry Pi boards in June and continued to teach them to crunch lines of code. Over time, four students of aviation engineering volunteered to join his efforts and chipped in with their own laptops. Saksham Kids, an NGO that runs an informal school for underprivileged children in Nithari, offered him a classroom. Some of Chaddha's students did not make much headway and eventually moved on to other pursuits. Now, in an unassuming classroom with lime-coated walls, seven students sit huddled around laptops and RPi boards trying to learn the ropes of writing embedded code.
The teenaged boys and girls had only fleeting knowledge of using computers, but Chaddha says teaching them was effortless and fun. “There is a general perception that only engineering students are capable of learning programming or electronics. I never studied computers and programming formally. I picked it up on my own when I was just 18. It's no big deal today, but in 1979, when IBM PCs or MSDOS did not exist, programming was not something that people knew. I know that most of these kids may not get into engineering courses.” In the far future, he envisages his students doing as well at programming, if not better than new engineering graduates.
One of the volunteers with the students
Though Chaddha's initiative has taken only baby steps yet, his goals are tremendous. He believes his work could potentially set off a chain of dominoes; these young'uns could put their knowledge and skills to use by teaching others. Some of them have already started teaching Python programming to other teens and adults living in the migrant colony. He is even hopeful that his students may find employment opportunities in maintaining, programming and developing embedded devices, which are becoming ubiquitous. To help his students market their skills and find opportunities, he has acquainted them with various social networks such as LinkedIn.
Chaddha who has been running GVC Systems, an embedded systems development firm for the past 18 years says, “I belonged to a lower middle class family. I am not even a graduate. I learnt programming informally from my seniors in my first job.” He is paying it forward, he says, by teaching children belonging to the lower economic stratum of the society. “I turned 50 this year. This is my way of celebrating it.”
Over the next couple of years, Chaddha plans to train five such students under the age of 18 to develop embedded programmes better than most engineers.
What prompted Vinay Chaddha to choose the Raspberry Pi over more commonly available hardware? He says, “The Raspberry Pi is a low-cost and small-sized computer. Back in June, when the Raspberry Pi was newly launched in India, I told my students that it was the latest computer on the block, and that they were among the first in India to use it. I wanted them to have the element of pride and excitement of using a brand new thing. Moreover, learning open source languages such as Python is easy. I did not want to use expensive proprietary software or their pirated versions.”
In the less fortunate pockets of Nithari, the miniature computer has brought a boatload of joy.
Class in progress
Photo credit: Vinay Chaddha
Cover image: Wikimedia Commons/ Nico Kaiser
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