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‘Most Innovative Teacher’ pursues maths, programming skills to develop AI tech

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Students are studying electronic robotics and Arduino Programming at ArrowDot. Photo supplied

‘Most Innovative Teacher’ pursues maths, programming skills to develop AI tech

Thol Chanthorn was just a high school teacher who had earned a degree in mathematics and had taught within his major for several years. While working as a teacher he has further developed his skills in maths and studied computer programming as part of his lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

Chanthorn has dreamt of building an artificially intelligent machine since he was a child and understands that maths plays a very important role in all aspects of technology. That’s what led to his decision to declare maths as his major at university and learn how to code as a practical application of that knowledge.

“To start out, I learned how to build websites. Now I’ve gotten further into coding and technology through ArrowDot [a computer/electronics store] by experimenting with electronic modules like Arduino [an open-source electronics platform] and ESP Projects. Then in 2019 I studied Python with Cisco. Right now, I am working on completing a masters degree in maths at Royal University of Phnom Penh,” says Chanthorn.

Chanthorn has also been developing a bot that can speak Khmer and he says he’d like to create an AI [artificial intelligence] adviser in the future.

“It’ll be a speech recognition based [AI] bot that can converse in Khmer. I am going to develop it for the education field,” says Chanthorn.

Chanthorn entered the Cambodia’s Most Innovative Teacher 2020 contest last month and won first prize for his research on “Best Practices in Project-Based Learning [PBL]”, which focuses on utilising current technologies in the classroom.

As the first place winner, Chanthorn took home five million riel ($1,250) in prize money and a new laptop. The competition was held on December 3-4 by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport with IT Academy STEP Cambodia.

Chanthorn tells The Post that he won the Most Innovative Teacher award for a project where he led his students in researching different uses for Arduino modules.

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Chanthorn developed his skills in maths and studied computer programming while he was working as a teacher. Photo supplied

The learning objectives of the research project were the discovery of new facts, examining the differences between events, processes and phenomena to identify cause and effect relationships and the development of skills necessary to use new scientific tools to understand both scientific and non-scientific problems.

“I also like to teach my students about how to solve social problems or how to solve the problems that happen in everyday life,” he says.

Chanthorn says, by way of example, that some students aren’t very good at maths. What should they do to help those students? A creative technological solution might be to develop a mobile app that assists them in their studies.

“Another example, in order to avoid direct contact with the gel and alcohol-based hand sanitiser containers, we came up with a sensor that detects shadows to automate the alcohol spray and reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection,” he says.

He admitted that coding for Arduino was not an easy task for the first six months since he wasn’t very familiar with its complicated coding language.

Arduino is an open-source electronics platform consisting of both hardware (an electronics board with a micro-controller chip and interface ports) and software tools that are used to write code to program the micro-controller chip, according to the company’s website.

Chanthorn says: “We write code to program systems. For instance, say we are developing a small robot and then decide that we want it to walk automatically. If it is to walk automatically, it’ll definitely require a motor but also maybe some sensors that detect motion or light to trigger movement and its orientation. An Arduino chip can be programmed to respond to sensory input by activating the motor.”

He says his paper on “Best Practices in Project-Based Learning [PBL]” focuses on STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths] education and uses modern teaching methods that are multi-disciplinary and that try to create a link for students between what they are learning in the classroom and what they encounter in everyday life. It also focuses information technology [IT] and use of the scientific method, scientific tools and technology to facilitate learning.

Chanthorn says the “Cambodia’s Most Innovative Teacher” competition has provided benefits for educators, students and the education system as a whole.

“It encourages educators to get involved in actively developing innovative strategies and technologies for teaching and learning. Teachers can learn a lot by participating or just from the projects submitted by other teachers who are competing. That could help improve the quality of education in Cambodia.

“It’s great for students because it finds new ways for them to learn and it’s more about the process than it is about the outcome. It also introduces students to project-based research which will help them in higher education and their future careers.

“Students love to learn from practical knowledge that they can apply to their careers or other real-life pursuit instead of just memorising facts for an exam. They want to be able to help their families and communities after getting a job,” Chanthorn says.

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(From left to right) Thol Chanthorn, Kim Mithona and Chao Vannak are the first, second and third prize winners of Most Innovative Teacher 2020 awards. Photo supplied

The Most Innovative Teacher contest was sponsored by the ministry as part of the Cambodian E-Learning Forum 2020 which was held so that educators could exchange ideas and strategies about how to proceed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Any teacher from kindergarten through high school who had an innovative idea that used IT to help students learn was encouraged to apply, according to a statement by the ministry.

The ministry welcomes candidates from both private and public schools to enter the competition, but Chanthorn says educators who don’t know how to use current technology won’t be able to take part in the event.

“I don’t think it’s possible because teaching and learning in this era has to be up-to-date in order to be innovative. So educators should first learn about the new technologies,” he says.

Chanthorn has also been the head of the Science Club at Hun Sen Serey Pheap High School for the past three years. The club has faced many challenges. During his first year, the club lacked the necessary materials to do hands-on work with electronics, such as the Arduino modules he has been learning to program.

“One of the reasons why I took part in this competition was to get the school administration’s attention so they would give my projects [like the Science Club] additional support.

“I also believe that competition brings innovation and improvement and this experience helped me to better understand how that works and how we might be able to use contests [such as science fairs] with students to encourage them to pursue careers in engineering, electronics, mechanics, IT and so forth,” he explained.

He wants as many teachers as possible to take part in next year’s competition so that they gain experience through first-hand research and to aid in the professional development of Cambodia’s educators – in addition to the benefits gained from all of the new ideas they might come up with.

“I also wanted to raise awareness and get more people to take part in coming up with new ideas and creative problem-solving. There are so many problems that teachers and even students could help solve like air pollution, access to education for the poor and many social issues,” says Chanthorn.

For more details, visit the website of the Cambodian E-Learning Forum at https://www.eforum.moeys.gov.kh/most-innovative-teacher-2020.

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