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High school students make coding skills multiply

Nonprofit MathAndCoding has taught more than 200 computer science workshops to teens

Coding isn't as hard as it sounds, but it might not be accessible to many teens. That was the idea that inspired Nikhil Cheerla and Vineet Kosaraju, two Bay Area high school students, to start MathAndCoding, a nonprofit organization that aims to teach young students about computer science and programming.

Since May 2014, MathAndCoding has taught more than 800 students how to code at different levels, using Bay Area libraries -- including those in Palo Alto, Mountain View, East Palo Alto and Los Altos -- as its classroom, according to Cheerla.

With high school volunteers as teachers, the nonprofit serves a two-pronged training program, volunteers noted: Young tutors get to improve their public speaking and teaching skills and young students learn computer science.

The group will be teaching a five-week Java Programming Workshop geared to kids in seventh grade and older at Palo Alto's Mitchell Park Library starting on Oct. 3.

Cheerla was only a freshman in high school, and Kosaraju a sophomore, when the two founded the organization.

"We realized that ... it's really hard to start programming if you don't know somebody who knows about programming or if you don't have family who is experienced in that," Cheerla said. "It's just really hard to start from scratch, and schools don't really teach a lot of programming. So we thought that there was a gap between experiences we had and what most people had with programming, and we wanted to (help) bridge that."

Kosaraju added that they often used to help their classmates who were trying to learn programming.

"The general idea (with MathAndCoding) was to see if we could expand these things we taught our friends to other students -- if we could help more students in a more organized fashion," he said.

After developing a curriculum to teach kids mathematics and coding at an entertaining and elementary level, Kosaraju and Cheerla held their first workshop at the Mountain View Public Library, Kosaraju said. Seeing the high demand from kids for programming specifically, they decided to focus on coding classes, reaching out to more local libraries and adding volunteers to the team, he added.

Currently MathAndCoding offers various workshops on weekends, typically lasting from three to four weeks, including Coding for Kids (third to seventh grade) -- which uses an online coding game called Tynker -- and a Java class for students from eighth to 12th graders. Both workshops have been offered at Mitchell Park Library in Palo Alto this year. Admission for all workshops is free, and individuals interested in attending workshops can register at the organization's website, Cheerla said.

Kylee Michelle Krzanich, a high school junior from Los Altos, said that she enjoyed teaching Coding for Kids workshops multiple times in her local library.

"It's both rewarding and really inspiring to see these kids pick it up so quickly and with so much enthusiasm," Krzanich said. "It inspires you so much; that's the reason I keep coming back."

Students' parents have consistently expressed excitement and gratitude about the program, she added.

Krzanich found out about the volunteering opportunity at MathAndCoding online and immediately signed up. Within a month of going through a one-time teacher training program taught by Cheerla and Kosaraju, Krzanich started leading workshops.

"When you're trained and ready, it just depends on the library (as to) when it offers sessions," she said.

Now, MathAndCoding's goal is to expand to more libraries, especially to those outside of California, Cheerla noted.

"We're kind of hoping to spread organically," he added, explaining that he and Kosaraju are not planning to manage the entire program themselves but to train volunteers so they can lead classes in their own local libraries independently, using the MathAndCoding curriculum and tools.

"We have a plan to make the overall organization less centralized," Kosaraju concurred. "Right now pretty much Nikhil (Cheerla) and I are navigating everything from recruiting volunteers to training them, setting up classes, contacting librarians.

So it's a lot to handle, and it also kind of limits the potential that MathAndCoding has since we can't manage everything by ourselves."

Cheerla and Kosaraju noted that they are trying to find grants to help them cover expenses such as providing students with laptops for the workshops.

Both Cheerla and Kosaraju said their journey with MathAndCoding has been rewarding, helping them improve certain practical skills such as public speaking in addition to refining their programming abilities.

"It's been a really amazing experience honestly," Kosaraju said. "I've learned so much personally and (have become) so much better of a teacher, of a public speaker, of a programmer."

Volunteer Krzanich believes MathAndCoding is not only distinct from online coding programs but also more beneficial to kids because of the classroom environment, in which teachers can help students solve the problems.

And, she added, the subject matter is essential for students these days.

"I do think coding is just as important as reading and math especially in our age," Krzanich said. "The earlier you learn the better."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the school years when Cheerla and Kosaraju founded MathAndCoding. Cheerla was a freshman, and Kosaraju was a sophomore.

Editorial Intern Sevde Kaldiroglu can be emailed at skaldiroglu@paweekly.com.

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