By Alexis Fitzpatrick – Herald Mail Media
On Friday afternoon, Northern Middle School sixth-grader Leila Mielke got to take home a new laptop with the hopes of developing a handy skill — coding.
The 11-year-old was one of eight recipients of computers bought and donated by Digital Civics, a club made up of North Hagerstown High School students that aims to get youths interested in coding.
Leila, who participates with Girls Inc. in Hagerstown, said she is excited to learn more about computer programming.
Her father, Jon Mielke, supports his daughter’s interest.
“The more you can learn about computers, the better,” he said.
The laptops were handed out to the fourth- through eighth-graders at the Fletcher Branch of the Washington County Free Library Fletcher in Hagerstown.
While the facility has reopened for browsing and computer use, Young Adult Librarian Ann Shilling said the Digital Civics giveaway was the first in-person event the library hosted since closing down to the public on March 13, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shilling said the students in the club are “library kids” who frequented the teen department prior to the closure.
When North High junior Rayan Shahid contacted her about helping out, she suggested choosing local children involved with Girls Inc. and Bester Community of Hope to receive the donations.
Rayan said Digital Civics was founded on the message that coding, especially in the hands of the younger generation, could help the world.
The club already created an app that helps Spanish speakers learn about American government through vocabulary lists of government terms, interactive articles and quizzes. They also launched a website, Educación a Distancia, that provides tips about virtual learning resources for Spanish-speaking families with children in Washington County Public Schools.
Currently, the group has a GoFundMe campaign called “Bring Arduinos to Jamaican Schools” to raise funds for Joining Jamaica to help provide resources for computer science education to schools in Jamaica with little WiFi access. Arduino boards are micro controllers that can be used by students to code robots and smart devices such as thermometers and motion sensors, according to the campaign.
For Friday’s giveaway, Rayan said the group of 11 to 13 members had been planning for months, including raising more than $1,500 through a GoFundMe campaign to purchase the laptops.
“We have it so every once in a while they can report back and say what they’ve been doing, like what code-related things they’re doing … but it’s their laptop to keep,” he said.
Digital Civics members and North High juniors Anish Gupta, Musa Waseem, Mohid Basha, Ryland Mata and Ali Zia were also present to hand out the computers.
Ali, who co-founded Digital Civics with Anish, said there were “no barriers to entry” with coding being largely self-directed.
“We wanted to show them they don’t need an insane amount of resources. Sometimes you only need one laptop to completely change your life or change your career path,” he said. “You can do basically anything within reasonable bounds and expand the access to knowledge. We thought that was a really beautiful thing, so we wanted to give that opportunity to kids who didn’t get to do that.”
Ali said there was a wealth of “untapped potential” in the Hagerstown community, and encouraging a work ethic in younger children could be vital.
“Sometimes people overcomplicate the mathematics of helping people. We kind of simplify that,” Ali said.