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September 1, 2014, 5:24 pm

Harambee Mandarin classes in demand

Spoken everywhere from neighborhood Asian stores to the epicenter of global commerce, Mandarin Chinese is fast becoming one of the languages that moves the world’s money.

So much so, the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology has expanded its collaboration with the “STEMnasium Learning Academy” to hold Saturday classes that teach students how to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese, along with other instructions to help these students gain a footing in the changing global marketplace. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

“The platform is Mandarin Chinese, which is a real game-changer. These students couple with teachers who train them, and engage in a service called ‘PeerPort,’ which allows teachers to come on screen, engaging students in language exchanges and handwriting as well,” said Harambee science teacher Tariq Al-Nassir, who directs the program. “Mandarin Chinese is a trade language. We could’ve chosen any dialect, but we chose Mandarin specifically because in China and Tokyo, Mandarin is the dominant trade language, no matter what province you’re from.

“China is expected to lead the global economy in 10, 15 years, along with the lead in [STEM-related industry], and when you can speak a man’s native language, it results in a real paradigm shift.”

The class will partly culminate in April, when the students will conduct several business transactions in the city’s Chinatown district.

The Saturday classwork is a 48-week program, not including an additional eight weeks in the summer. The collaboration between Harambee and the STEMnasium allows any student enrolled in a Philadelphia public school to enroll in the class; the program is built for 60+ students, and the roughly 50 who are enrolled in the program are dedicated, Al-Nassir said.

“The kids love it. As an example, over the Thanksgiving holiday break, with Black Friday and all, the kids were off from school and could do whatever it is that kids do when they are home, but we had students who showed up,” he said. “They dedicated themselves to showing up on that Saturday. What we accomplished on that Saturday was different than what we accomplished on other Saturdays, but I was very impressed that the parents bought into the fact that we can’t take a vacation, not when we’re trying to reach people on a global level.”

And in the end, training these students – most of whom can be classified as at-risk – to meet the challenges that future global economic wrangling will present. Al-Nassir has lamented the apparent lack of American schools teaching STEM-related coursework to very young students.

To that end, Harambee’s partnership with the STEMnasium has allowed the school to teach Java coding and other high-tech programming languages, including Bootstrap. That these courses are equal to the first-year classes offered at partner schools Temple University, Carnegie Mellon, University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology can only help.

“If you pick from the cream of the crop, the students will always do well,” Al-Nassir said. “But what about the other students, the ones who are behind? The real difference is taking a child that is struggling and exposing him or her to the next level, and watching the effects.”


Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .