Anita Devasahayam
“Each volunteer experience
gives me hope,” says Anita
Devasahayam, who led a
STEM event for underprivileged
kids in Petaling Jaya.
Anita Devasahayam
“Each volunteer experience
gives me hope,” says Anita
Devasahayam, who led a
STEM event for underprivileged
kids in Petaling Jaya.

Part fifteen in a series. “Voices of IBM Volunteers” is part of the All Things STEM program to reach millions of young people through volunteering and interactive activities.

The drive to close the global skills gap is among IBM’s most important initiatives. All Things STEM calls on IBM volunteers to promote activities that enable digital literacy with young people, introduce them to hands-on problem solving, and sparks their interest in STEM learning—using resources and support on the IBM Volunteers web site.

In the series, IBM volunteers share their passion and perspective, in their own words, on what it means to be a volunteer and the positive impact we can all have on society.

IBM volunteer: Anita Devasahayam, Brand and Communications Leader

Anita Devasahayam joined IBM in 2012 and is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. IBM Volunteers spoke to Anita to learn about her experience leading a STEM activity for underprivileged children in a tough neighborhood of the city.

What motivated you to become involved with the Block 2 Learning Center?
I met Sister Stella Michael at a retreat in 2017. During the group sharing part of the day, she talked about moving to Desa Mentari in 2004 to set up the Block 2 (B2) Learning Center under the auspices of a non-profit The Lady Superior Society of Saint Maur. The Center is a safe haven for children from blue collar working families living in Desa Mentari.

She described how despite the challenges, three of the kids from the first batch made it to university. I mean, it took her 12 years to realise her labour of love in a community fraught with multiple challenges. That impressed me.

Tell us about Desa Mentari and the B2 Learning Center
Desa Mentari is a housing scheme in Petaling Jaya that was originally built by the government for squatters. The area is run down and crowded. The air is fetid. Lifts don’t work. Broken windows are common. It is a rough neighbourhood.

The parents, majority single parents, earn minimum wage in jobs such as factory workers, domestic cleaners or lorry drivers. The children are often left to their own devices after returning from a 6-hour school day.

B2 is in a low-cost flat in Desa Mentari. Stella lives in the flat and she turned the living and dining room into a classroom for the children to study and do their homework. She teaches them to do simple household tasks and coaches the older children who in turn coach the younger children on schoolwork and chores. When everyone finishes their homework and chores, they get to play football, even the girls.

How did you think you could help?
At the end of the retreat, I went up to Stella to find out more about the children and asked if any of them had used a computer before. She said they hadn’t, as access to computers at the public schools the children attended was limited. I decided to try give the children a taste of technology.

What did you do?
I proposed a hands-on session for the children to expose them to science and engineering. We decided to use the IBM Activity Kit “Engineering Everything” to introduce the children to engineering.

We also recruited another IBM volunteer, Nickalas Manuel Pillay, who did a foundation course in engineering. His talk about his experience was augmented by a hands-on session to assemble a rover bot. Nick was also the emcee of the day.

The intent was to give the children a glimpse of what is possible as most had minimal access to computers. Stella was thrilled with the idea.

Tell us about the event and how it went
We gathered at Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation’s (MDEC) Digital Maker Hub in Cyberjaya—MDEC is one of IBM’s influencers and partners in Malaysia.

There were 34 children, aged 9 to 17, and five volunteers from B2 who took part. The B2 volunteers were there to help translate English or Malay to the children who mostly spoke Tamil.

I was anxious at the start and worried that some of the children might be disruptive or uninterested because it involved assembling a rover bot made of cardboard. But the children were so well behaved, and I began to relax.

As the day progressed, everyone loosened up and the cacophony of chatter between the 25 IBM volunteers, co-facilitators from Chumbaka and the children was music.

Stella said she has never seen the children so engrossed and occupied—and they were using technology!

What was the highlight of the day for the kids?
The highlight was the competition. After activating and testing out the rover, the children were divided into teams and readied the rover bot for competition. The competition involved lifting light and heavy equipment from point A to point B within a set time.

Everyone was on the floor cheering their teams to maneuver their rover bots to lift the blocks and carry them to the finish line. The best team carried a total of eight items across the finish line!

It was more than just putting together a machine, adding a PC board and programming the bot to work but being able to use it to do something useful. The achievement was triple-fold!

Where did you get the materials for the bots?
The materials were provided by Chumbaka, who is one of the start-ups supported by MDEC. Chumbaka sponsored the material to build and operate the rovers.

Did you have any challenges during the activity?
The kids were generally very shy. Many did not speak English and the instructions to assemble the rover bot was in English. We were stumped because most of us did not speak Tamil. One of the IBM volunteers found a video online which helped us guide the children to complete the assembly work. That’s the IBM teamwork spirit!

Was there a memorable moment for you?
At the end of the session, a nine-year old boy—among the youngest there, who barely spoke English—told Stella he wanted to be an engineer when he grows up. To hear that was testament of the impact of technology to society.

How did other IBM volunteers help you?
We recruited volunteers through IBM Volunteers and by word of mouth.

Prior to the event, the volunteers were briefed on the activity. They were super supportive and patient in coaxing the children through the process despite language differences. The volunteers too were humbled by the experience to interact with children from such different backgrounds.

Cheryl Toth, who was an IBM workforce consultant at the time, volunteered her STEM story. She shared how her interest in technology started as a child, and how her love for STEM grew and made a difference in her life.

My hope is that the children will have had their eyes opened to the possibilities of STEM—and consider Cheryl, Nick and all the volunteers as role models.

What happened after the event?
We secured an IBM Community Grant for the society to help Stella set up a mini computer lab for the children to use for research and to complete class assignments. Stella said the mini lab would go a long way to prepare middle school children for their exams.

Also, Chumbaka updated the code using IBM Watson based on their learning with the rover bot and the B2 children. Following this, the TJ Bot was used for volunteer activities with 90 students from three schools. Earlier this year, IBM volunteers took the TJ Bot activity kit to Sarawak in Borneo and together with the IBM Corporate Service Corps team ran workshops for 600 high school students.

What’s next for you as a volunteer?
After B2, I volunteered to conduct a digital marketing class for SNV Vietnam—a Dutch non-profit international development organisation. In April 2018, I led the Teaching Respect activity kit where the students spoke of their experience as bullies and being bullied. I plan to explore the use of this kit further and how to use it for people with disorders.

Each volunteer experience gives me hope, so it’s a path I will follow.

For over 100 years, IBMers have created positive change in the world through their day-to-day work and their service in local communities. Since 2004, over 300,000 IBM employees and retirees have contributed nearly 22 million hours of volunteer service

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