“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”- Steve Jobs
Thinker who Tinkers!
A conference room fills with 40+ middle school girls excited and passionate to learn how to design and build a website! We are at the She Codes Art’s first free workshop in Microsoft, Redmond. “She Codes Art” (https://www.shecodesart.org), is a non-profit which teaches CS fundamentals through art-related activities to girls and other underrepresented minorities.
The workshop starts with a team building activity and a great ice breaker where all the girls in smaller groups were given a piece of tape, a few spaghetti sticks and a marshmallow. Each team uses these materials to create the tallest structure. I sit there observing them letting go of their inhibitions, having conversations and starting to get excited about what they are going to build and learn in the day. After the ice breaker, we spend the next few hours talking about the basics of HTML, website design and complete the hands on coding activities, which resulted in their final, individual, creative websites. At the end of the workshop, girls who came in with no previous coding experience, now had this new website to showcase their skills.
As I stand there helping the girls, I wonder how just a one day conference can unleash so much creativity, technical skills and excitement as they witness their own creativity coming to life, in the form of a website! I can’t help but begin to reflect on my own exciting self-discovery and journey with STEM.
An avid swimmer, violinist (Western and Indian classical), math lover, tinkerer and visual arts enthusiast, I’ve always considered myself to be more of an analytical, hands-on and creative person and not a tech geek whom I thought typically sits in front of a computer and codes, debugs all day long. My passion for Math came very early on when I won first place in the Math Olympiad consistently in my middle school grades each year and also took advanced high school math in middle school and aced the classes. Growing up though, I felt like I was surrounded by many female friends who thought that math, robotics and gaming were boring and not exciting. Alas, I didn’t find many allies and inspirations in my girlfriends. However, I had a few childhood male friends who were passionate about gaming and robotics and as I interacted more with them, something about using Legos and bringing them to life with coding, struck a chord with me! I wanted to try it. It was fascinating. That’s when I decided to participate in my first FLL robotics competition as a captain where our topic was ‘Into the Orbit’. I had never done anything like this before. I’d never been part of a team of boys in the majority. But I just thought, you know, what’s the worst that can happen? I’ll jump off the cliff and give it a try. That’s when the gender boundaries completely faded in my mind. I helped lead the team to research a real-world problem on how people stay safe in space and also design, build, program a robot using Lego Mindstorms to compete on a table-top playing field. This was my first foray into a technical hands-on project. While working on coding skills and tinkering with building something that could function with movement and perform real tasks like stacking blocks, lifting blocks etc., I was fascinated. With all the passion that went into this, we won the ‘Teamwork’ and ‘Team Project’ awards at the competitions. Since then, I have learned several programming languages like Scratch, Python and am excited this summer to learn all about Arduino programming and Java. For me, this was a moment of realization and redefining what I was made to believe about a ‘techie’ and ‘CS geek’. I began to comprehend that CS was not just about being a tech geek where you are hooked on to a computer, write endless code and debug but instead there are profound applications, creative avenues and several ways technology can be leveraged. I was hooked. I was in awe with how tinkering, coding and teamwork could bring things to life and there were endless possibilities. We had just built a functioning robot that could move frontward, backward and do several simple tasks with blocks! I began to wonder how this robot had the potential to grow manifold and perform much more.
It dawned on me though at this time of excitement that I was also in disbelief and disappointment that many of my girlfriends didn’t experience the same or maybe just didn’t have the right opportunity to explore. I wanted to do something about getting girls at a younger age excited in math, robotics and coding. When I could see passion and excitement in these areas, get over the gender boundaries, I wanted to bring others along too. While the world statistics are clear on the low number of girls in STEM, this was right in my home. I was determined to do something. I wanted to be a catalyst of change. If I didn’t do something about it, nobody would. I get a lot of my inspiration from this quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Therefore, in the summer of 6th grade, I started my first opportunity of volunteering as a counselor in training where I taught elementary girls Math concepts by using art and creative games for an organization. It is an understatement if I tell you more than a handful of girls in conversations told me they found Math boring and something they don’t enjoy because they are not good at it. This had to change. I had witnessed this even with my middle school girlfriends. I began to volunteer every summer since then and continue to figure out creative ways to get them excited young! I also began volunteering through the year as an Instructor at an organization, where kids from low income families get taught basic coding. I was appalled at their natural curiosity to learn, get intrigued by simply using a laptop and tinkering around. These young elementary kids had the fuel and passion but lack of resources and opportunity. I knew this is just the beginning of a journey and I want to do much more in years to come and also start introducing the love for tinkering, building and robotics. I also volunteer twice a month assisting high schoolers for a nonprofit organization called GRISM to help young girls get excited about Math and Science. We discuss various topics throughout the year, create hands on projects and make it engaging and exciting for them to learn. I plan to also bring in the love for robotics and get more girls excited about tinkering, coding and bringing it all alive! My sister and I have co-founded a community initiative called Joys of Giving (www.joysofgiving.org) and since 2016 we have raised over 10k+ for various organizations and have a mission to imagine a world in which every individual from all walks of life has equal opportunity and can access the profound power of education and technology. We believe in transforming and making an impact in our community where we see the greatest needs. As a freshman in high school this fall, I have a vision around the wide array of opportunities and ideas of how I want to bring more girls along this journey of tinkering, robotics and coding. I believe that fortitude is key and staying untethered despite the multitude of challenges that surround me is pivotal.
I strongly believe that by creating more opportunities, advocates and role models we can march towards an inclusive STEM community and empower our current and next generation of innovators. Because I have experienced the gender inequality in STEM first hand, I want to be a role model for younger kids who feel like they do not have a voice, and teach them to always “Remember their ABC’s (Always Be Confident).”
I strive to focus on what I can do each day to make a small difference. Each of us, wherever we are, has the opportunity to do the same – take an action driven by hope, a small step that makes things a bit better. And if everyone does something that makes the world a bit better, our collective work will in fact make the world a lot better, for the people we love, for our communities, for society.
Fun Facts about Vanesha Hari
- She is the youngest kid (13) to receive the honor of ‘STEM in Action’ award for contributions to the community by the world’s largest advocate for women’s engineers (SWE)
- 150+ Connections reached in STEM education (girls + underserved kids)
- 300+ hours of mentoring/teaching in STEM
- Co-founder of community initiative (www.joysofgiving.org) raising over $10k for various nonprofits supporting underserved children
- Youngest intern at SIXR (Home, SIXR – SIMULATED IMMERSIVE EXPERIMENTAL REALITIES.) to help educate high school children in underserved schools on how to create and code a video game using Unity and C#