Empowering India’s Youth with Computers
An Indian American teenager, Sonia Uppal, is helping children in Himachal Pradesh learn computer programming.
Sonia Uppal is anything but your average student. A college freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, Uppal has already begun furthering her passion of using technology to make the world a better place. Her project “Pi á la Code”—which started in 2013—teaches underprivileged students how to code. Excerpts from an interview.
What was the role of computer science during your youth and how did it eventually become your passion?
I was born and brought up in Silicon Valley in California, but when I was in fifth grade, my family relocated to Bengaluru. There, I had my first experience with computer programming and I hated it. The instruction was dry, boring and not intuitive; I totally lost interest. But once I moved back to California for my eighth grade, I took part in my middle school’s mobile app competition. As the lead designer for our team, I loved figuring out how users would interact with our app. And we ended up winning the competition! I was hooked on to this world of using immersive tools to build software that people loved to learn with.
Having spent extensive time in both the United States and India, what were the biggest differences you observed—both academically and culturally?
In India, I attended The International School of Bangalore (TISB). The commotion of India was very different from the quiet neighborhood where I grew up, in California. Studying at The International School of Bangalore really taught me how to be disciplined and organized.
When I returned to California, I joined my town’s youth commission in order to give back to the community. I began to undertake the Pi á la Code project in 2013 to help students in India, who might never get the opportunity to explore the field of computer science. I’ve since made two trips back to Kasuali [in Himachal Pradesh] to teach my students in person, and have also used Skype to interact with them through the year.
Did your vision for Pi á la Code change along the way? How did you decide on its central mission and audience?
My vision in the beginning was to bring the universal language of programming to an underserved group. Along the way, my focus became the kids in rural India because I saw that not only were they as intelligent and clever as any other kids, but they also had a lot less [resources] than other children—both in India and in the U.S. I realized that students at an elite school in an urban city in India would still have access to technology, but students in rural India would never have this access. So, I went back to a little school tucked away in Kasauli, an area I had visited before with my family.
How did the Stanford University’s she++ fellowship become a resource to help launch Pi a la Code?
In my sophomore year of high school, I was accepted as one of the 30 she++ fellows in its inaugural year at Stanford University. she++ is a Stanford-based student organization that works to inspire young women to pursue computer science. I was able to connect with industry professionals who would later help me with fundraising and publicizing Pie á la Code. Visiting tech companies and talking to other women in the field helped me get a sense of how I could take this project to the next level.
What broad future goals do you have for Pi á la Code? What challenges seem most exciting to take on?
The most exciting challenge for Pi á la Code is how to scale it. I am currently working on an e-book that compiles my entire teaching curriculum into a single place. I am hoping to publish it this summer and then, possibly, work on a Hindi version, so that the book and curriculum can be used as a teaching tool.
Finally, do you have any advice for other young aspiring programmers? What are the most valuable lessons you have learned along your journey with Pi á la Code?
Economic background does not matter; anyone can learn programming. Learning how to code is becoming such a necessary skill for the future. So by helping other people to program, you are helping build a better society.
My last advice is, don’t be afraid to speak up and do your own thing. I couldn’t find people doing projects like Pi á la Code, so I decided to do something about it. From robotic limbs and artificial intelligence to digital design apps, it dazzles me how much computer science can help make the world a better place.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.