Smriti Somasundaram, 14, started Saturday morning teaching 11 middle school-aged girls how to use MIT App Inventor.
The girls were participating in a two-day workshop put on by Somasundaram’s nonprofit, DOT4Kids, as well as the Girl Scouts and AspireIT, an organization that supports women and girls in tech.
By 10:30, the girls had created the user interface of their first app, and were moving on to coding. Somasundaram showed the girls how they could connect an event, such as a click, to a reaction, like a sound effect.
Their app, which consisted of a picture of a cat and a button saying “Pet Me,” would culminate in a “meow” sound effect when users clicked the button. As girls connected their tablets to test the app out, Somasundaram announced, “Congratulations, you’ve completed your first app.”
DOT4Kids — which stands for Discover Opportunities in Technology for Kids — aims to reach kids underrepresented in the STEM field, and give them an introduction to coding. Although Saturday’s workshop was presented with the Girl Scouts, Somasundaram hopes to reach any kid that may otherwise have obstacles to building STEM skills.
“It’s not just girls who don’t have these opportunities — it’s kids in underrepresented areas, and foster kids, or kids with low-income families,” Somasundaram said. “I just want to be able to bring those opportunities to them as well, so we bring all the technology and the curriculum. All they have to do is be willing to learn.”
Somasundaram started coding in the sixth grade, inspired by her parents who both code for a living. As Somasundaram got more active in coding, she began to notice not as many girls were involved in technology. “I realized there weren’t as many girl coders that were coming up and so I wanted to be a little bit of change,” she said.
Somasundaram submitted a short video to the ThinkBIG Challenge about why STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) is important. “From there, it ignited the spark,” she said.
Somasundaram became a peer teacher through ThinkSTEAM, where she started teaching other kids how to code. With sponsorship from Thurston County nonprofit Together!, an organization that promotes youth health and well-being, Somasundaram was able to start her own nonprofit, offering one-day workshops in coding in local libraries with Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts, and in partnership with the Thurston County Expand Your Horizons Conference.
Last weekend was DOT4Kids’ first two-day workshop. After the girls finished their first app, they moved on to practice more complex coding, making apps they could draw on and shake to clear, an app that could repeat back whatever the girls typed in, and an app that could send an email, share their location, send a text message and make a call to certain numbers.
Mary McBride, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager at Girl Scouts Western Washington, thinks DOT4Kid’s coding workshops are a great addition to the organization’s offerings. She says girls are excited to learn about coding, and the workshops give them an opportunity to pick up or improve on their skills.
“A lot of the girls came in with some knowledge of coding and programming, but this workshop is really taking them to the next level,” McBride said. “The exciting thing is the person who’s leading it and the support team are not adults. … It’s peer-to-peer training.”
“The peer teaching is also really nice because they have someone who has gone through the process not too long before them,” Somasundaram said.
Somasundaram believes coding can help kids no matter where they intend to go in life.
“Technology is related to almost everything, and it’s going to be a really big piece of everyone’s lives in the upcoming years, so if kids learn how to code they can use this for whatever passion they have, not only just for coding,” Somasundaram said. “If they want to do sports, they can incorporate coding into an app for their team, or if they like to paint, they can do digital paintings.”
So far, Somasundaram’s workshops have inspired multiple girls to continue their education in coding. One girl created a website for her school based off of an HTML workshop she gave. McBride recalls another girl who started a digital Girl Scout troop with girls at her school so they could meet online and talk about how to use technology to address real-world problems.
“She started thinking that someone else had to do the app development, but although she doesn’t have an app that can be sold in the app store yet, learning the basic steps have really freed her up and empowered her to think about tools for solutions for tomorrow,” McBride said.
Somasundaram posed that challenge to the 11 girls attending last Saturday’s workshop as well. After creating four working apps and listening to a guest speaker talk about online safety, the girls were challenged to develop their own apps using the skills they learned in the workshops, and present them to a panel of judges so they can work on their presentation skills as well.
“This is one of the first times that the kids are creating their own ideas, but for this workshop we want to nurture their ideas and help them think a little bit on their own,” Somasundaram said.
The girls in attendance came up with concepts that rose to the occasion.
One group came up with the idea for a safety app that would give the user directions on what to do in certain situations. For example, if they were to get lost, it would give them a button that would connect them with 911.
Another group wanted to develop an app that could send certain contacts their location in case they needed to be picked up, and included fail-safes such as contacting 911 if the user failed to respond in a certain amount of time.
Other girls took a different approach to safety, by conceptualizing an app that connects the user to the National Suicide Hotline and tips on managing depression.
With a grant from AspireIT, DOT4Kids was able to give out prizes such as a Google home mini and Amazon gift cards for the best concepts and presentations.
Moving forward, Somasundaram is excited to continue giving workshops and expanding the reach of DOT4Kids. “I see the impact on the kids, and I definitely want to continue that,” she said.
DOT4Kids next coding workshop is in September. Sign up for their newsletter or check out the website for more information.