From Sekinchan To Kuching, This Teacher Is Helping To Raise A Generation Of Tech Creators

His social enterprise, Chumbaka, has impacted over 35,000 students nationwide.

Cover image via Nigel Sim (Provided to SAYS)

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Meet 33-year-old Nigel Sim, co-founder of social enterprise Chumbaka

Hailing from Kuching, Sarawak, Nigel started Chumbaka with the goal of helping students develop life skills — by inspiring them to create with technology.

To date, the social enterprise has impacted over 35,000 students and 1,000 schools through its Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) based learning programmes. In fact, Chumbaka continues to equip learners of all ages, from seven-year-olds to university students and even school teachers.

Nigel's journey started off in Sekinchan, Selangor as an English teacher

"I graduated as a biomedical engineer from Imperial College London and joined Teach for Malaysia in 2014, where we were trained and placed in high-need schools. [This is how I came to teach] English in Sekinchan to Form 1 and Form 2 students for two years," he shared.

According to Nigel, Sekinchan is a predominantly Chinese area, so teaching English was not the easiest thing. For most of his students, English was their third language. So, he had to get creative.

"During weekends or after-school hours, I started introducing my students to a bit of coding, robotics, and inventing"

"My students hardly had any opportunity to use English, so I encouraged them to practise it through coding. Since all the materials they found online were in English, they were [in a sense] forced to learn it!

"More importantly, when they went for competitions and exhibitions, they needed to prepare presentation slides, do up posters, and showcase their projects in English," he shared.

Back in 2016, some of these kids even represented Malaysia to showcase their ideas in Silicon Valley in the US. This may sound surprising, coming from a small town, but wait till you hear some of their inventions.

According to Nigel, one of his students came up with the idea of an "automatic" vacuum cleaner, back in 2015

"When Yee Heng first proposed the idea, I thought it was a silly idea, but I let him build the project anyway.

"Now, even I have a robot vacuum at home! So, it was an eye-opening experience for me, because some of the best ideas can be thought up by young students in school," shared Nigel.

The same student, Yee Heng (first from left), having his internship with KHIND.

Image via Nigel Sim (Provided to SAYS)

Another interesting project came the following year, when a group of students decided to create their own haze detector

Image used for illustration purposes only.

Image via Coconuts KL

A group of Sekinchan students realised that during certain days when the haze was really bad, schools remained open because the Air Pollutant Index (API) reading was still low.

Conversely, when the API reading was high and schools were closed, it was clear weather!

This prompted the students to investigate, and they found out the reason for the inaccuracy was because the nearest weather station to Sekinchan was in Kuala Selangor, almost 50km away. That was why they weren't receiving localised data for API readings.

"What they did was they built a portable haze detector that gave out API readings. Of course, it was not 100% accurate, but they went over to the weather station to see if there were correlations in their data... and there were! Their device was functioning, and it was placed and used in Sekinchan," said Nigel.

In fact, this invention won the students a gold medal at an international technology and engineering competition!

One of the cutest (and practical) inventions has to be the Snap King, a Bluetooth-controlled camera and intruder detector

Kok Wei (on the right) and his project partner explaining how the Snap King device works.

Image via Nigel Sim (Provided to SAYS)

"You will only understand this invention if you live in Sekinchan. Back then, it was already quite popular, now it's even worse with all the tourists coming in. And the thing that local farmers disliked the most was when tourists trampled all over their crops, in an attempt to take selfies.

"Well, two students found a win-win solution," Nigel told SAYS.

According to him, they made a device named the Snap King, which placed a camera on top of a broomstick, with a small 'capture' button situated outside the paddy field. This way, tourists could easily take the perfect selfie without stepping on the crops, and the photo would be automatically uploaded online.

One of the students who was part of this project, Pua Kok Wei, eventually got a scholarship to study in Princeton, and attributes it to the opportunities he's had through all the projects and competitions.

When asked about his decision to start Chumbaka, Nigel said that it was the perfect marriage of his interest in education with his background in engineering

"Education has always been something I really liked; even after SPM, I was already giving tuition classes. Teach for Malaysia allowed me to really explore my passion in that area, and when it came to Chumbaka, I thought to myself the best time to start something is when you are still fresh.

"[After two years of starting Chumbaka in Cyberjaya], I came back to Kuching, Sarawak, because I saw that there was a need and they were ready for this kind of programme. Also, I had always wanted to come back to my hometown to do something," he said.

Nigel has been back in Sarawak since the end of 2017, and he currently heads up Chumbaka's operations in Kuching, while his other colleagues oversee the social enterprise's operations across Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Cyberjaya, Melaka, Johor, and Sabah.

Nowadays, Chumbaka runs technology programmes for students around the country at its centres, schools, and through virtual classes

Students are taught various topics, including animation, coding, game development, machine learning, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), app development, Internet of Things (IoT), and more.

According to Nigel, Chumbaka hopes that schoolchildren will have the chance to participate and learn about the latest technology, regardless of where they come from.

"We are rather ambitious. In 2025, we intend to reach out to 100 schools in Malaysia, meaning to say these schools will adopt our curriculum inside their timetable. Currently, most schools are running our programmes as short-term co-curriculum programmes.

"But when we are fully embedded in these schools, every student will have the opportunity to learn these Industry 4.0 subjects. In Sarawak, we are working closely with the Ministry of Education and we're very aligned — we want to see all students have STEM subjects in schools," said Nigel.

"Coding has to be part and parcel of education, because it's not enough that students can read, write, and count. Now, they need to develop tech literacy."
Nigel Sim

As for how the rakyat can help, Nigel said that one of the ways is by supporting these students or becoming a mentor to them

Image via Chumbaka

Chumbaka currently runs competitions for primary and secondary school kids, namely the Young Innovators Challenge and Junior Innovate.

In the Young Innovators Challenge, participants come up with prototypes to solve real-life problems. The winners of this challenge are mentored by professionals to fine tune their prototypes, so that their inventions can even be adopted by the community.

Affectionately termed as 'Jedis' and 'Yodas', these mentors contribute real-world experience to help students bring their projects to life. If you're an engineer, programmer, or have experience in STEM industries, you can be a part of these competitions to impart knowledge to the next generation.

Find out more about Chumbaka and all the programmes they run on their website

Image via Chumbaka

All this month, SAYS will be featuring inspiring stories of extraordinary Malaysian changemakers in collaboration with Wiki Impact

Wiki Impact is an online platform dedicated to the impact industry. They share stories and data on issues that matter, highlighting impact-driven organisations and changemakers on the ground. Categories include poverty alleviation, social justice, gender equality, healthcare and education for all, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, impact influencers, and more!

Find out more here.

Image via SAYS

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