Voices of the Community

Thinker who Tinkers: How Vanesha Hari Spreads her Passion for STEM

Photo Caption: Montage of Vanesha at Various Volunteer Projects

A conference room fills with 40+ middle school girls excited and passionate to learn how to design and build their first website. We are at She Codes Art’s first free workshop at Microsoft in Redmond, WA.  As the Curriculum and Outreach Director at She Codes Art, we are on a mission to teach CS fundamentals through art-related activities to girls and other underrepresented minorities.

The workshop starts with an engaging team building activity where the participants organize themselves into smaller groups, and are given a piece of tape, a few spaghetti sticks and a marshmallow. Each team uses these materials to create the tallest structure possible. I sit there observing them slowly letting go of their inhibitions, having conversations and starting to get excited about what they are going to build and learn that day. After the ice breaker, we spend the next few hours talking about the basics of HTML and website design, then complete the hands on coding activities, which resulted in their individual websites. At the end of the workshop, girls who came in with no previous coding experience, now had a new website to showcase their skills.

Working at this nonprofit, I am amazed by how a one day conference can unleash so much creativity and interest in developing technical skills, as they witness their own creativity coming to life. I can’t help but reflect on what initiated my own journey with STEM.

As 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 assumed typically sits in front of a computer and codes, debugs all day long. My passion for math developed very early on, in middle school, when I won first place in the Math Olympiad and also aced advanced high school math classes. Growing up though, I was surrounded by several female friends who thought math, robotics and gaming were boring and not very exciting. 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 learn more. 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 mainly boys. 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 developing my coding skills, I was 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 forward, backward and do several simple tasks with blocks. I began to wonder how this robot had the potential to grow and perform more complicated tasks.

It dawned on me at this time of excitement I was also disappointed that many of my girlfriends didn’t get to experience this opportunity to tinker and explore. I wanted to do something about getting girls excited about math, robotics and coding from a younger age. When I discovered my own passion and excitement in these areas, it helped to get over the gender boundaries. I wanted to bring others along, too. I was determined to do something about the lack of girls in STEM. I wanted to be a catalyst of change.

Therefore, in the summer of 6th grade, I began volunteering as a counselor in training where I taught elementary girls Math concepts using art and creative games for an organization. It is an understatement if I tell you that more than a handful of girls told me they found math “boring” and “something they didn’t enjoy” because they were not “good at it.” I wanted to change these misperceptions.

I thought about how I could make changes in my school and community to shift these assumptions. I began to volunteer every summer since then, and continue to figure out creative ways to get others hooked on STEM at a young age. As an Instructor at Jubilee Reach, I work to introduce kids from low income families to basic coding. I was moved by their natural curiosity to learn, and how they get intrigued by simply using a laptop and tinkering around.

Additionally, I 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 am most proud of working with my sister to co-found a nonprofit called Joys of Giving. Since 2016, we have raised over $10k+ for various organizations and are on a mission to create a world in which every individual from all walks of life has equal opportunity and can access the profound power of education and technology. Earlier this year I was selected as the youngest girl to be awarded the STEM in Action community award for my contributions. As part of that recognition I participated in an all day Design Lab mentorship conference hosted by Society of Women Engineers (SWE), the world’s largest advocate for women engineers.

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 imbalance 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).” Each of us have the opportunity to do the same and make a difference. We can take an action driven by compassion and hope, a small step that makes things a bit better than we found it.

Vanesha Hari will be a freshman this fall at Redmond High School in Redmond, WA. We are grateful for community members like Vanesha, who help empower more women and girls in STEM. This story continues our efforts to amplify Voices of Our Community. If you have a story you’d like to share, please contact us at wogrammer@anitab.org.