When I first taught Iris how to program an Arduino back in the 2nd grade, she anointed our sessions as “Inventors University”. Inspired by her incessant reading of Harry Potter, she imagined our sessions as classes at Hogwarts and me as Dumbledore. She even wore her Gryffindor robe to some of our programming sessions. It became our special thing and a new way to bond while she could learn and I didn’t feel like I was pushing technology on her.
As time went on, we began to include Robyn in our classes and would do everything from individual instruction (Iris focusing on Python and Robyn focusing on Scratch) to joint lessons on the Swift programming language (and our “Meet The Dogs” app). Their work wasn’t limited to “class”. Iris went on her own and wrote a Python graphics script for Robyn’s birthday present last year (which painted a Harry Potter wand along with “Happy Birthday Robyn”) and even built a simple Assamese-to-English translator after learning some of the language from my family during a trip back east. Meanwhile, Robyn made a game called “Birdminton” in Scratch, which is a unique version of the Atari classic Pong with two birds on each side. She even managed to include a black and orange bird with the number 13 on it, an homage to Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (seriously, I LOVE this kid). Combining tech and parenting was the ultimate win-win and made for a fun way to let the weekends go by. In fact, when Cherise went to Africa for a couple of weeks last year, we really got into it and it became the dominant theme for that time. We often talked about extending our university to people outside our family, but coordinating schedules and just making the time got to be too difficult and we just kept it as our private fun club.
And then the election happened.
I wanted to lash out about the statement it made about the value of women in society. I wanted to lash out about the statement it said about our disenfranchised people in this country. I wanted to lash out about the statement it made about the judgment it passed on brown people like myself. But it was up obvious that that would accomplish nothing. So I withheld my social media comments from Facebook (except in cases of sheer stupidity, when I couldn’t resist), and decided there had to be a better way. I resolved to do something. But how do you fight selfish, egotistical behavior? How do you help the community in a way that is antithetical to what you fear is becoming of our country? How do you make the world a better place? What talents can I deliver that can make change when the voting public can’t do it? And then it hit me.
Inventors University as a tool for change.
Instead of creating our club for our friends, could we find a deserving group of girls who otherwise couldn’t get the opportunity to do something like this? Iris and Robyn attend schools that are flush with cool gadgets, qualified teachers, and encouragement to get into tech. But for a lot of kids out there, they might get their “Hour of Code”, but that’s about it. With all due respect (and I love the concept), an hour is only a tease and spending that hour following a recipe of instructions doesn’t validate the act of coding as a means of creativity. It barely scratches the surface. Meanwhile, they might see computers in the lab every now and then, but they could never imagine having a computer of their own. That’s a realistic problem for a lot of kids today. These were the kids Cherise had in mind when she ran for school board, not our kids. What if we extended our club to them? What if we provide them the gifts that we take for granted–ownership of technology, encouragement to learn, and freedom to create?
Now I confess that when I started thinking of this approach, I wasn’t sure about was whether my girls would be so willing to give up of our special club to a bunch of strangers. But I wasn’t done. Things were about to get worse for them. I decided to throw a wrinkle on them that I knew would make them uncomfortable: I was going to make them teach the classes.
When they first heard my request, the girls probably assumed they had a sadistic father that was just trying to make life hard on them. But honestly, there is rhyme and reason to my approach. You see, I have a theory about the lack of women in tech. Females are, by nature, more communal and more collaborative. They tend to be more social, they tend to want to spend more time with other people. Honestly, I find myself happier when I spend more time with female friends then male friends and I think this is part of the reason why. However, most computer science professionals are not communal. They prefer solitary environments, they prefer to work with headphones on and focused, leveraging a very simple relationship with their computers. People can be hard. They can be nuanced, irrational, and erratic. Some of the best coders I know find people frustrating and prefer machines. Machines are consistent and deterministic. I say that because that’s how I got into computers. There were many lonely nights as a child where I’d be writing code from dinner time to bedtime, alone in my bedroom by myself. I just appreciated the solitude. I wouldn’t even describe myself as a lonely kid, but I just loved getting lost in my code. And those hours are what gave me both the skill and the confidence to do this job full-time. I still have a tendency to do that, staying up long after Cherise and the girls have gone to bed. Meanwhile, Cherise ditched engineering after Stanford because (as she memorably told me on our first date) the first job after graduation was so boring and lonely. As we like to joke, the difference between us is that she gets no pleasure from staring at a computer screen for hours in search of a bug. She needs contact and the world lost a capable female engineer…
But development doesn’t have to be a lonely undertaking. It doesn’t have to be solitary. It doesn’t have to be a sage on the stage, lecturing while a bunch people take notes and follow some strict set of steps that involve no creativity. In fact, I’m convinced that we lose some very capable people amidst the boredom of rote instructions and impersonal machines. Instead, it can be peers teaching other peers, encouraging creativity and going on your own. The greatest thing about a computer is that it is an amorphous tool that can be anything you want it to be. It can be a book, a fountain of information, an art canvas, or the ultimate Swiss Army Knife. You just have to know how to use it. And it doesn’t have to be an authoritarian adult that teaches you. It can be a peer who knows why this stuff is exciting and can get you excited in the process. Robyn’s “Birdminton” should be more inspiring to a kid than Steve Jobs’ iPhone because a kid sees something that was achievable by someone just like her. Before any kid builds the iPhone, they need to build their Birdminton. That’s the power of peer learning.
The other problem is access. My life changed when my dad got me a computer. We didn’t have a lot of money and it stretched our budget in ways that he would have preferred to avoid, but he knew he needed to feed my desire. My life and my livelihood can be traced to my family’s sufficient funds and the willingness of my father to prioritize that computer over the vacations we didn’t take and the cars we never bought. Many kids don’t have that luxury. But it’s 2016. A pocket-size fully functional Linux computer costs $35, $70 with all the extras (cords, keyboard/mice, etc). Sure they need to learn a few extra things about it, but isn’t that the fun part? Owning your own computer and being able to do special tricks with it? Well that was the case for Iris and Robyn and we believe that being the case pro lot of girls out there who don’t get those opportunities.
I’m not going to lie. I have an ulterior motive as a father in doing this. I want my daughters to learn about others who are not as fortunate as them and empathize, not sympathize. I want them to think of their lives as a life of service to those who need their help, even if they need to extend outside their chosen profession. I want them to adopt leadership roles, overcome their shyness, and gain confidence. I want them to know that they can be the change they wish to see in the world. I want them to learn tech and you learn best by teaching, so they will build their tech skills. I want them to think entrepreneurially and opportunistically, which is why 80% of the design of this idea is theirs. And most of all, like the motto of the school, I want them to listen to the words of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech: “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams”. That quote, along with the Inventors University logo (designed by Iris), is posted on each of their bedroom doors. I don’t take those words lightly. In fact, I’d say they’re what spurred me into action.
So, we’re doing this. Our website is live. Our Facebook page is live. We’ll plan to start with a 10-week program on Saturday mornings that goes from January to March and hopefully follow that up with a Summer Camp. Each girl has come up with lesson plans (Iris for Python and Robyn for Scratch) on what they will teach each week. We have T-shirts and notebooks ordered, Raspberry Pis tested and about to be ordered, Scratch accounts preset, and even a student questionnaire to help pair up partners, and a school identified as the source of the first students. Throughout this month, Iris and Robyn will be practicing teaching classes to everyone from friends to their grandmother and uncle. I think Iris is occasionally a little nervous, but starting to get more excited as things get more real. As the original founder of Inventor’s University, I think she’s starting to feel the pride that goes with creating something that becomes bigger than herself. She came up with the logo, made a proposal for the summer camp structure, and constantly peppering me with Python questions. Robyn has become the drillmaster, constantly reminding me about stuff that needs to be done, bringing a notebook to dinner to discuss different ideas, and constantly badgering me to order materials for the school. It makes working from home harder as she’ll come by my office at 4pm and ask if I’ve read her documents (“honey, I promise I’ll review your slides after dinner, OK?” Not a sentence I expect to say to a 3rd grader). She’s convinced her teacher to allow some time in class for her to practice her teaching on her classmates. She has even wanted to cancel playdates because it’s interfering with her planning. Seriously, she’s borderline obsessed with it. I think she’s after my job as Headmaster, so I should probably be a little nervous if I wasn’t so proud.
So, how can you help? You might think I’m going to ask you for money, but I’m not. At least not yet. 🙂 The first wave of students will be eight 4th and 5th graders and we should be able to foot the bill personally as our only cost is materials and $100 per kid for computer & accessories, IU notebook, T-shirt, and snacks should keep us under $1000. Robyn really wanted to put a PayPal donation button on our site (lessons learned from Cherise’s campaign, I suppose), but I think if we opened up donations, we might pass the amount and I don’t want to do that yet as we still need to figure out whether this is sustainable and also determine whether we are in a position to make this a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. If you’d really like to chip in, let me know privately as external support would make this feel a little less like a family project and would make it easier to make commitments for the summer. But here’s what I would appreciate: positive reinforcement. I’m not asking for you to praise them, but rather praise the cause. It’s obviously not about me, but I also don’t want this to be about them. I want this to be about the kids that they are helping. Cherise spent three months running a campaign that put the needs of these less fortunate kids over those of her daughters and I want those daughters to carry on that legacy. I want them to understand that, as a community, we stand for the opportunities for these underrepresented girls to be given access to technology and cultivate a learning and a love for computers. That’s the object lesson here to impress upon them.
So visit our website at inventors-university.com, “Like” the Inventors University Facebook page, and stay connected to our progress. Go ahead and comment here. Send them a private text or email through me.If you see the girls around, let them know if you think this is a worthwhile project (they’ll squirm as they’ll feel self-conscious about potential praise, but it’s good for them). Make sure they know that despite election results and the complete disregard of human decency, there are people who still believe in the greater good.