Students becoming teachers: These sisters use Code.org to teach kids around the world

The two high school students in Jersey City, New Jersey, lead online classes and use the proceeds to benefit their community.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused school closures around the world, many students suddenly found themselves with a lot of time on their hands. But sisters Harita and Sharada Suresh of Jersey City, New Jersey, saw an opportunity.

“We were bored at home and realized other kids were bored too,” says Harita, 14. “Extracurricular activities were canceled, too, so a lot of us were just playing games. So we wanted to let kids learn how to actually create the same games that they’re already playing.”

Sharada Suresh, left, and her sister Harita started an online nonprofit computer science school for students ages 8–11. (Photo courtesy of Harita Suresh)

That’s when Harita and her younger sister Sharada, 13, started Little Apple Academy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching computer science to children ages 8 to 11. They built a website and posted about their first class on Eventbrite, where they began with just one student in April 2020.

“But later on, we got more traction by word-of-mouth and we started a Facebook page where we posted what we did every week,” says Sharada. “Then we got more students, so we started hosting more classes.”

To date, the Suresh sisters have taught 800 hours, and collectively, the students of Little Apple Academy have written nearly 90,000 lines of code.

The students become the teachers

Little Apple Academy’s stated mission is to “open the doors to the endless magic of coding through our interactive and innovative classes.” Their virtual classes don’t require any prior CS knowledge and are available for free. Students join the classes from countries around the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Saudi Arabia, India, and Kuwait.

The experience has allowed Harita and Sharada to have the unique position of being both students and teachers of computer science. Harita is currently taking AP Computer Science at her school, and while Sharada’s school doesn’t currently offer a computer science class, she continues learning independently via online resources. But both say they prefer teaching.

Sharada says teaching is more fun because you get to share your knowledge with others.

“When you see a child write their first line of code or see their first function run, they smile and they’re so happy because they’ve done something by themselves,” she says.

Harita says her students’ determination has inspired her: “We had a student in India who came to our morning classes, but it was the middle of the night for him! But he’d stay up and learn programming with the rest of the class and he never complained about being tired or anything. As a teacher, that was the greatest thing, having my students feel motivated enough to come to my class even when their circumstances had them coming to class in the middle of the night.”

Starting a school using Code.org

The sisters first learned to code on Code.org, where they started out with Hour of Code activities and the Code.org Express Course. That’s where they start with their Little Apple Academy students, too, before moving them along to learn Scratch and Python.

“We use Code.org in the beginning because when we use it, everyone is able to learn step-by-step,” says Harita. “Then when we move on to Scratch and Python, it’s easy for them to understand what’s going on. It would be a lot harder if we didn’t start on Code.org. We started learning on Code.org, so we want our students to do the same, because it’s very good.”

Using code to uplift a community

In addition to sharing their love of computer science with kids around the world, Harita and Sharada use Little Apple Academy to give back to their community. While their group classes are free, they also offer private lessons for a small fee that the Suresh sisters donate to charities within their community. Together, the sisters have raised more than $1,000 to give directly to NJ BITE and The Mary House Emergency Food Pantry of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, and to make brown bag lunches to take to their local shelters, like the St. Lucy’s Emergency Shelter in Jersey City.

Though they’ll be back in school in-person this fall, Harita and Sharada plan to keep Little Apple Academy alive. They hope to expand their curriculum to more languages and maybe even start holding in-person classes. They’re also interested in starting international chapters with locally-recruited teachers, so students won’t have to stay up until the middle of the night to attend class anymore.

Harita and Sharada’s parents are both programmers who’ve instilled in them a love of computer science. While Harita plans on becoming a programmer someday (“I’m very interested in AI, but also software development,” she says.), Sharada doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up, but says she’s sure of one thing: “I’m always going to have computer programming as part of my life.”

-Samantha Urban Tarrant, Code.org

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