In March 2020, due to stay-at-home orders in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year-old Jade Nair was sitting in her home in Andover, Massachusetts, bored. It occurred to her that if she was bored, kids younger than her would probably be having an even tougher time with the limited activity and social interaction.
That sparked an idea.
Last fall, Nair had become the first female student to volunteer in a program called Energize Andover, which has a mission to eliminate energy waste at the local level through the use of programming and data science.
"I'd always wanted to recruit other girls into the program," she says, "and I knew that this was a good time to do it because everyone would be looking for something to do."
Nair decided she'd use her free time during quarantine to teach other girls to code so they could join Energize Andover, too.
Video by Mariam Abdallah
Although her plan started with teaching five eighth and ninth grade girls the basics of programming, now, four months later, dozens of Andover students have learned to code using virtual courses she developed.
Here's how Nair was able to take her budding idea into a virtual movement teaching kids STEM, even as they social distance throughout the pandemic.
Nair began her efforts by getting guidance on teaching materials from Energize Andover and reaching out to eight girls she'd met either in her robotics club in school or through online coding courses with Girls Who Code. Five replied and said they were in.
In mid-March, Nair dove into teaching her recruits the basics of a programming language called Python. The lessons took place on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons over Zoom.
"My goal was just to get the girls to a point where they were really confident in Python and they knew enough data science that they could start working on projects on their own," says Nair.
One week in, she says, "I realized I'd kind of touched on to something. ... If I could teach virtually in one space, I could do the same in another."
Not long before quarantine, Nair's high school robotics club had been in talks with Andover Youth Services (AYS), a local nonprofit offering various activities for middle and high school kids in town, about teaching in-person coding classes over the summer. But, given the pandemic, Nair knew those in-person classes might not be an option. She told AYS about her Energize Andover classes and asked if they'd be interested in virtual coding classes instead.
A few weeks later, they launched a pilot program, teaching six kids the basics of Python twice a week over the course of four weeks. Three of Nair's fellow robotics team members came on board as teacher's assistants.
The course was a hit: Not only were they able to fill every spot, but there were 19 more kids on the wait list.
That led to a second successful round of classes in May, followed by summer classes in June covering four topics: programming languages Python and Java, web design, and CAD, or computer-aided design.
Each six-student class was filled to capacity.
Those efforts led Nair's mom, Sangeeta Nair, to nominate her as a Homegrown Hero. "I was just really inspired by what I was hearing," she says about hearing the details of her daughter's initiatives over dinner. "I saw the hours she was spending, she's already at more than 100 hours. ... She's my hero for sure."
Between Energize Andover and Andover Youth Services, Nair's programs have taught 41 students so far.
She's taken on a more managerial role for the summer initiatives, leading a team of 16 instructors from her robotics club and filling in as a teaching assistant for the Java class. The team is now in talks with AYS about a second session of summer courses.
While AYS has offered to pay teachers and teacher's assistants for their time teaching the summer programs, Nair herself has elected to continue as an unpaid volunteer. She's in it to make a difference, after all.
"My favorite part of programming is the feeling I get when it finally works," says Nair. "Seeing other kids get that experience has to be my favorite part of this initiative."
"I think anyone wanting to help their community should really find something they love and throw themselves into it," she says. "Once you take that first step, the hard work will stop feeling like work because you're doing something you love and you're helping others around you."
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