Nova Scotia

'Help them choose a better path': Coding classes introduce newcomers to careers in computer science

When Hassan Alzamel arrived in Nova Scotia last year, he knew he wanted to study computer science, but didn't know where to start.

Maritime Labs was started by the Dalhousie Syrian Student Society

Maritime Labs runs from Nov. 18 to Dec. 16 at Dalhousie University. (Dalhousie Syrian Student Society/Facebook)

When Hassan Alzamel arrived in Nova Scotia last year, he knew he wanted to study computer science, but didn't know where to start.

"I didn't know like how can I study, what's the way, what's the method for that?" said the 21-year-old, who came to Halifax with his family as a refugee.

Then he discovered Maritime Labs, a workshop run by the Dalhousie Syrian Student Society that teaches newcomers how to write code.

It became his road map for navigating an unfamiliar environment. 

"It's very important especially for people who don't know anything about Canadian education system," he said. 

From email to Java

Alzamel met with the workshop's founder, Yaser Alkayale, and enrolled in a session. Soon, he felt well on his way to a career that first captured his attention as a kid playing computer games in his hometown of Daraa, Syria. 

"I was wondering like how these games were made and these programs. I asked myself many questions about that when I was 13 and 14," he said. 

21-year-old Hassan Alzamel decided to study computer science at Saint Mary's University after enrolling in Maritime Labs. (Hassan Alzamel/ Facebook)

Zaher Abd Ulmoula, a graduate student in computer science at Dalhousie University, is teaching the latest five-week session. 

He studied IT engineering in Homs, Syria, before coming to Nova Scotia with his grandfather in 2016. 

"I have the same things, like I am new here," he said. "So maybe I have the same problem as them, so I know what they need because I learn them before. So maybe that will help them a lot."

About 35 people of all ages are enrolled in the latest session. (Dalhousie Syrian Student Society/Facebook)

The workshops cover both computer programming and English, while acting as an introduction to post-secondary education. 

It's designed for all ages, and the lessons range from how to code for Java and develop software for Androids to setting up an email account and shopping online.

"We did this to introduce computer science for newcomers so maybe some of them will like it and make a future career," said Abd Ulmoula.

"The industry here is soon going up. There is a lot of startups."

'Stunning' number of women enrol

There's also more being done to expand coding education in Nova Scotia. 

Coding is now part of the curriculum in grades Primary to 6 thanks to a $1-million investment last fall. A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said more money is on its way.

There's an effort, too, to bring more women into the field. Right now, women make up less than 25 per cent of students in the faculty of computer science at Dalhousie University. 

Of the 28 people who graduated from the program in 2016, about half were women. (Dalhousie Syrian Student Society/Facebook)

Arazoo Hoseyni, a fourth-year student in the faculty, said it was "stunning" to see so many women enrol in Maritime Labs.

Of the 28 people who graduated from the inaugural workshop in 2016, more than half were women, she said. 

Hoseyni helps out as a teaching assistant and sees her job as part instructor, part motivator. 

"Girls belong in engineering, computer science and whatever field they want," she said. 

"So I think opening up an option for them to try it out and take courses beforehand, I think this will help them choose a better path in their life."

Workshop begins Nov. 18

Alzamel is now in his first semester at Saint Mary's University, and while these days his mission is simply to get through midterms, he has his sights set on a career in the computer security field. 

"That is what I think is the best now to protect our computers and our companies," he said. "I think that is very important."

The next workshop begins Saturday and runs until Dec. 16 at Dalhousie University's computer science building. 

About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a journalist from B.C. who has covered rural issues and Indigenous communities. Before joining CBC Nova Scotia in 2017, she worked as the editor of a community newspaper. Have a story idea to send her way? Email emma.smith@cbc.ca