Coding teacher Phary Phal is patiently guiding a classroom full of young pupils step-by-step through the process of making an animation of a starfish.
These are the next generation of coders in the Kingdom, who will likely play a vital role in the development of the country as it enters the digital era with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Phary Phal is the founder of organisation Champion Coders, where children aged six and up come to learn coding.
“We learn to divide big issues into small elements and solve them step-by-step. It is a strategy called ‘computational thinking’, a method to solve problems in ways that a computer could execute,” Phal tells The Post.
“Most parents wonder why their small children need to study coding from a very young age. I reply that coding is not limited to those who want to be a computer programmer. This programme is mainly established to be creative, confident, have logical thinking and problem-solving skills, be persistent, be efficient and be able to communicate well with other team members,” the former student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s (RUPP) Information Technology Center adds.
As a licensed operator in Cambodia for parent organisation Coding Kids Australia, Champion Coders opens its door to teach young Cambodian children about block-based-coding, which is the more accessible alternative to its counterpart text-based-coding.
“With a background in text-based-coding from RUPP, I then started learning block-based-coding for one year in Australia, which is another computer language created for young learners. When I studied block-based-coding I found it easier and I thought that this programme can help Cambodian kids,” says Phal, who is currently studying for her Master’s degree in Applied Finance and Accounting in Australia.
Phal explains that coding is the computer language used to develop apps, websites, software, games, cartoons, as well as things like robots and drones. When the kids reach an advanced level, they can create robots of their own using single-board microcontrollers like Arduino and text-based-coding languages.
Wearing a hat with pink rabbit ears poking out of the top, 10-year-old student Socheata Tepi says that over the term she has learned code to create a cartoon of her own.
“It was a bit difficult for me at first, but now I am OK. I studied coding because I want to produce games like Candy Crush,” she says.
Phal launched her coding initiative in Cambodia in December last year, but she says the programme has been run in Australia for three years now.
“I asked my friends why Cambodia has English classes but no coding, because English is not enough for kids alone these days,” she says.
“Coding programmes help children to develop both sides of the brain – the left side is used for logical thinking and the right one is for new innovation.”
Phary Phal says that the importance of technology and coding is evident for all to see in Cambodian society. And rather than just enjoying the fruits of innovation, children should aspire to lead it.
“We use technology but we don’t think about how we can create our own. Thinking about making something new, we always believe that it is very difficult. But it is not so hard if you start at a younger age,” she says.
Phal compares learning code to learning a foreign language, in that it is easier for learners to start at a young age.
“One important point in learning code is to build confidence. Kids start to believe in themselves when they create something new on their own, it doesn’t matter how small or big it is.”
Phal says that children generally need two years to sufficiently learn block-based-coding if they start from the age of six.
She rejects claims that block-based-coding is not a real computer language, saying it can create many things from cartoons to programming drones.
The Champion Coders block-based-coding programme consists of ten one-hour weekly sessions over the course of a term.
Phal has struggled to attract interest from state-run schools, but says she is hopeful of finding private school partners for her programme.
“I want to work with local private schools because I understand that we have to run fast in this technology age. Only 0.3 per cent of people across the world can write code. The technology is growing fast among other industries,” she says.
Accompanying his ten-year-old son to Champion Coders, Heang Leang Hong, who is also a teacher, says he wants his son to learn how to create things.
“When I was teaching in a classroom nearby, I saw small children learning code. My son has loved the subject since Preah Sisovath High School put it into practice,” he says.
Phal encourages all children to try out her classes, saying her teaching methods allow kids of any ability to do well.
“Children of all abilities can learn coding when it is broken into smaller sections. When a difficult thing is divided into smaller problems, it is easier. And in our classroom, we have at least two supportive teachers helping no more than 15 students,” she says.
Champion Coders is located on Level 2 at the Learning for Success Institute in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district. Programmes are available for kids aged between 6 and 15 years old, and cost $120 per 10-hour term.