Pinnguaq is bringing coding classes to the far reaches of Nunavut, Canada, where poor internet infrastructure has prevented schools from adopting computer science curricula. The social enterprise teaches students to code games and software, and centres lessons around Inuit culture, history, language and mythology. The aim is to grow the tech industry in Nunavut, where unemployment and poverty rates are the highest in the country — particularly among the indigenous Inuit, who make up 86% of the population.
Results & Impact
Some 250 to 300 kids have participated in the coding courses, which take place across the Canadian territory. Pinnguaq fills a sizeable gap in Nunavut's education system, which has never been able to offer courses in subjects like computer science that require a stable internet connection. It also works with the federal government to give out free refurbished government laptops to students, indigenous people and other low-income Nunavut residents.
Pinnguaq, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, EA Canada and other private companies
Pinnguaq employees travel throughout Nunavut - a territory the size of Western Europe - with USB sticks pre-loaded with 100 coding lessons. They teach their students to build one game a day, using skills related to coding, math and engineering. Everything they teach is related to Inuit history, language and mythology, in an effort to help preserve Nunavut's indigenous culture. Youth centres, health and wellness organisations and schools from across the territory host Pinnguaq, and they coordinate and publicise the program locally. Pinnguaq recruits mentors from big-name companies like EA Canada, whose employees join the courses via live stream to give students first-hand accounts of work in the field.
Indigenous people, children, low-income people, students, young people, rural population
Cost & Value
The course is free for students, which leaves Pinnguap to rely on private and government funding to sustain the program. It was awarded around $325,000 (USD) from the Arctic Inspiration Prize, which the social enterprise has used for startup costs.
Running since 2012
The biggest hurdle for the non-profit is funding: travel and lodging costs are high in Nunavut, where a single flight from one part of the territory to another can cost about $3,650. The social enterprise has received a variety of grants - but to continue scaling its work, Pinnguaq will need a more sustainable source of government funding and support.
A social enterprise is bringing coding classes to kids in Canada’s most remote territory, Nunavut, for the first time.
Game designer Ryan Oliver founded Pinnguaq – which means “play” in Inuktitut, one of Nunavut’s two official indigenous languages – as a coding club for students in 2012. Oliver, who worked for the Government of Nunavut for six years, has since expanded Pinnguaq into a travelling computer science curriculum. Some 250 to 300 kids across the territory have taken the course.
“There is no computer science offered anywhere in Nunavut at all. It’s not something kids are even given the choice to know exists,” said Oliver. “We need to build capacity here so we aren’t just importing people, and in order to do that, we need to make technology programs an option.”
Nunavut is roughly the size of Western Europe, with a population of just 37,462 people. Job opportunities are scarce: the territory’s overall unemployment rate is 15.6%, but in some areas, that figure jumps to 72%.
Some attribute the lack of opportunities in Canada’s northernmost territory to a lack of internet infrastructure: despite government efforts, internet remains slow, expensive and unreliable in Nunavut.
“After our first session in 2012, we realized that we can’t just walk in and expect kids to download stuff,” said Oliver. He and his colleagues travel to far-reaching islands across the Arctic Archipelago, armed with USBs pre-loaded with 100 lessons.
The kids build a game a day, plus an additional piece of software by the end of the program, using skills related to coding, math and engineering. Everything they build is rooted in Inuit culture, history, language and mythology, as part of Pinnguaq’s mission to help preserve indigenous culture. (Nunavut’s population is 86% Inuit.)
Pinnguaq offers the course for free, which means sustaining the model isn’t easy: flights from Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, to a far-flung town like Kugaaruk will cost at least $3,650 (USD) per person, plus about $200 nightly for accommodation. “Pretty quickly, a five-day training session can run $24,000 to $40,000. That’s the biggest barrier,” said Oliver.
Pinnguaq sustains itself from private and, primarily, government funding. It was awarded around $325,000 from the Arctic Inspiration Prize (a private fund that supports innovation in the Canadian North) in December 2016, which allowed Oliver and his colleagues to cover startup costs.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) also funds the social enterprise. On ISED’s behalf, Pinnguaq administers Computers for Schools Nunavut, which gives out free refurbished government laptops to students, seniors, the indigenous, refugees and low-income Canadians.
The social enterprise has had to get creative to sustain itself: Pinnguaq has received government grants from the Justice Department – on the grounds that learning coding can keep indigenous children off the streets – and Youth Health, by justifying the program’s potential to support mental heath.
“Pinnguaq functions with government support and the acknowledgement from government that this is about building an economic opportunity, and an industry that will pay itself back tenfold,” said Oliver. “But at the end of the day, we’re dealing with the territory that has the highest rate of poverty and the lowest rates of employment in Canada – and probably most of the Western world – so this is not something that we are making money off of, or seeking to make money off of.”
Pinnguaq relies on local partners – such as youth centres, health and wellness organisations and schools – to coordinate and publicize the program. According to Oliver, the lessons students learn in Pinnguaq can be relevant to any career path: “We approach game design and coding as a catch-all for anything you want in life: you can be a developer, but you can also be an artist or work in human resources.”
Pinnguaq partners with private companies like EA Canada – video game developers based in British Columbia – to mentor the 15-25 kids enrolled in each course. Every day, employees from a variety of fields join a live stream via Skype to teach students about the different opportunities available to them. They act as mentors, offering counsel and introductions to people in the field.
“The tech industry in Canada is massive – it’s growing the future of work in this country,” said Oliver, who laments that the opportunities simply aren’t reaching the North. “I think Nunavut’s education system is overworked and understaffed, and for the last 10 years has lacked a definitive direction – every four years, a new government comes in and changes the way things are done.”
Education programs like Pinnguaq are particularly important for the advancement of indigenous populations in Nunavut. The current disparity in achievement is stark: just 1.8% of the territory’s Inuit population has a university degree, while 47.4% of non-indigenous people do. Only 40% of Inuit people a high school degree.
Pinnguaq is currently waiting to see if it will receive a grant from CanCode, the government of Canada’s new $40.5 million-dollar funding program for computer science initiatives. If it does, the Nunavut Department of Education has agreed to work with Pinnguaq to ensure its curriculum is fit for school standards. Oliver hopes the next step will be implementing it throughout the territory’s education system.
“Sustainability is very important to us: it would be easy to go in for five days, then leave and take all the knowledge with us. But what we’re trying to do is build a program that goes beyond us,” said Oliver. “We lay the groundwork, then the community and students can run with it.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Amanda Graham)
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