Mikael Arustamyan is a teenager on a mission: becoming a mobile game programmer. Such is not at all impossible in today’s world, but challenging, if you are from Mkhitarashen, a village of 100 people in western Nagorno Karabakh. The dream came within reach in 2015 when TUMO, the free-of-charge Yerevan-based Centre for Creative Technologies, opened a branch in Stepanakert, Nagorno Karabakh’s main city. Since then Mikael dutifully travels once in a week to attend classes.
“I started to attend the classes because I wanted to learn robotics. Later I moved on to studying programming and went deeper into this sphere, especially in mobile programming,” explains an enthusiastic 15 year-old who, alongside a team of three, developed Save The Bomb, a mobile game where players have to safely remove bombs and overcome challenges to move onto the next level. The game, available on GooglePlay online, draws from everyday, as mines dating back the conflict with Azerbaijan of the early 1990s still dot the region’s hills.
Programming has got under his skin, as it has for about 700 teenagers, since the centre opened in Stepanakert, providing free-of-charge digital education to children between 12 and 18 years old in the region. The philanthropic venture of Sam Simonian, an American communication magnate of Armenian heritage based in Texas, TUMO is forming a new generation of tech professionals at no cost, including transport, as the centre for example, provides a bus to pick up and drop off students from outside Stepanakert.
Today around 1,030 students attend the centre every week, choosing among 14 tech specializations - from robotics to animation, from game development to film-making. Center manager Korioun Khatchadourian maintains that TUMO is a valuable platform for self-affirmation where children living in a conflict zone, can access the same, if not better, education than those not touched by war. The large venture also runs TUMO Banak - or TUMO Army - which is a specific program for conscripts implemented in the TUMO centres in Yerevan and Dilijan, Armenia, and Stepanakert.
Curiosity pushed the then 14-year-old Shushanik Hayriyan to walk into TUMO in 2015. She knew that it was the place she could learn something new, otherwise not available in Nagorno Karabakh.
“I was given the chance to be exposed to different skills and guided to understand which one is closer to my heart. It turned out to be art. It’s the skill set that I acquired at TUMO that helped me to get into the visual art department of Dilijan’s international school,” explains Shushanik. Now 16, she mastered skills like the highly trendy data visualization, and already works on assignments. She will move to Dilijan in September.
Despite its innovative approach, TUMO was not the first to introduce digital education in Nagorno Karabakh. In 2010 the first information technology centre opened in Stepanakert, and schools across the region adopted the NUR (from the Armenian “New Educational Strategy”), a project about computer literacy for school pupils.
Digital education is not only in Stepanakert. In 2013 four volunteers Ani Alaverdyan, Ruzanna Hovsepyan, Astghik Aghajanyan, Lilit Arakelyan from the department of Applied Mathematics of Artsakh State University initiated the IT Sunday school for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students in the village of Tmakahogh, near Martakert, with the aim to to teach math and IT skills in smaller settlements.
“We had no funds, the university would only cover travel expenses,” explains Ashot Avanesyan, the project’s coordinator. “The volunteers would travel to the junction between the main road and the only leading to Tsmakahogh and from there it was the village’s head or the school’s headmaster would take them to the village with their personal cars.”
Today also children from the neighboring villages of Vank, Garnakar, and Shahmasoor attend IT Sunday school which now operates with the assistance of the “Artsakh IT Centre Fund” of the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports.
Technical and financial constraints mean that only 40 students can attend the IT Sunday school and they are selected during a three-week summer school. Some students wish to continue the IT training provided by the Sunday school until they complete the regular education path in public school.
Mariam lives in Vank, a village of around 1300 people near Martakert. The IT Sunday school gave her the chance to acquire knowledge that the regular school program would not cover. Every Sunday the 16-year-old is a student for the first half of the day and a teacher for juniors for the other half.
Avanesyan maintains that this capacity-building approach, whereby students are involved in the teaching process as teaching assistants first, and then would be allowed in the long term to set up a Sunday school in every village.