Last week’s announcement is the culmination of a lot of firsts for 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao: Being named as the first Kid of the Year by TIME Magazine, representing Colorado, and STEM School Highlands Ranch, a public charter school.
The title as the first honoree comes on the heels of another world-wide historic moment featuring a global teen leader – much like Rao.
In 2019, Greta Thunberg, the now 17-year-old environmental activist was named TIME’s person of the year, setting a new and exciting example of how young people are challenging the status quo and sharing their voice. She was only 16 when she was named and was the first person under the age of 25 to be honored.
In a TIME article about how they chose the 2020 Kid of the Year, they said of Thunberg, “her movement to stop climate change, among other world-shifting youth movements of recent years, make clear that young people carry tremendous influence today, and that they are using that influence to shape a world that matches their vision.”
This inspired the magazine to create a similar honor, dedicated to honoring young world-changers in partnership with Nickelodeon. Panelists including Nickelodeon stars and comedian/author Tevor Noah looked at more than 5,000 U.S.-based nominees of “rising leaders of America’s youngest generation.” Rao in addition to the 5 finalists will be given opportunities to contribute to TIME – an important part of this honor in addition to a cash prize – as elevating student voice on a national scope can help adults understand issues today’s youth face which leads to systemic change.
“Exceptional leadership is what made the ultimate Kid of the Year, 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao, stand out,” TIME said. “Rao not only researches scientific tools such as artificial intelligence and carbon nanotube sensor technology and applies them to problems she sees in everyday life, like cyberbullying and water contamination. She also shows other kids how to tap into their curiosity, aspiring to create a generation of innovators.”
Creating solutions to lead contamination in water and cyber bullying
Rao has been a rising leader in STEM for years. She was named a Forbes 30 under 30 and won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for her inventions – most notably, a device which measures the lead content level in water called Tethys (named after the Greek Titan goddess of clean water). The device uses carbon nanotubes to detect lead in water, which then sends contamination information via Bluetooth. She was inspired to create a solution to detecting lead in water after learning about the Flint water crisis. As of January 2019, she was working with the Denver water facility and hopes to have a prototype in the next two years.
She also created a service called Kindly, which is an app and a Chrome extension built to be able to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on artificial-intelligence technology.
“I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar. You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is,” she told TIME. “The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.”
The Lone Tree student wants to attend MIT and says she reads MIT Tech Review “constantly.”
TIME Kid of the Year elevates student voice
“There are problems that we did not create but that we now have to solve, like climate change and cyberbullying with the introduction of technology,” Rao told TIME. “I think more than anything right now, we just need to find that one thing we’re passionate about and solve it. Even if it’s something as small as, I want to find an easy way to pick up litter. Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big.”
The TIME Kid of the Year honor, which will be an annual feature is a huge win for the growing movement of elevating student voice.
According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “a major goal of elevating student voice is to support young people in becoming agents of change in partnership with adults. To do this, it is important to consider the existing power dynamics between adults and young people and to plan ahead when there is divergent thinking and opposition.”
Today’s students are faced with extreme challenges – in addition to the growing economic divide, historic unemployment rates, and massive student loan averages – they are the generation that is facing climate change, and racial inequity head-on.
Promoting young peoples’ voice, and letting them tell their own stories of how they feel, their ideas, fears, and passions is an important step in honoring their agency in their own lives and in the world.
The TIME Kid of the Year also shows other young people the power of how leadership can start at any age.
A huge win for Colorado
STEM School Highlands Ranch is a public charter school, part of the Douglas County School District. Founded in 2011, STEM serves 1,800 students in grades K-12.
In May 2019, a student was killed and eight were wounded in a shooting by two peers. Rao’s international attention for excellence in science, especially during the challenging pandemic year, is an especially bright spot for the sch00l and Douglas County.
“It is a true testament to her ability and dedication to making the world a better place. For Gitanjali, the sky’s the limit and we are so proud of her,” Douglas County School District interim Superintendent Corey Wise said in a statement.
According to the school’s website, they have “built a strong reputation as an academically rigorous school that challenges its students while providing them with abundant hands-on experiences that make education more engaging and relevant than the traditional model. Students help direct their own learning, guided by experienced teachers who know how to facilitate learning without getting in the way.”
The school notes that 35% of their population are students of color, and 97% of graduates go immediately to college or take a gap year before attending. Rao identifies as Indian-American and has been featured by a variety of publications in India for the TIME feature.
As it is a public charter school, and part of Colorado’s Public Schools of Choice program, there is a waiting list, and enrollment begins on Dec. 1, with priority being given to founding families, siblings of current STEM students, employees, and Douglas County residents. There are no admission requirements, “testing in” or other requirements.
STEM Highlands Ranch is a great example of how the innovative school of choice (also called open enrollment) model that Colorado started state-wide in 1994 provides students with multiple opportunities to individualize their education. Excellent schools such as STEM are free for all students and don’t have any admission requirements – and yet the curriculum provides high-quality learning for those interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. There are other Colorado schools which are also free and cater to student needs and interest – all for free.
A+ Colorado believes that more school options provided for students create a more equitable educational system. The conversation of schooling models should always be focused on the kids, and the public charter school system in Colorado is simply a governance model. Similarly, other models such as innovation schools, or traditional public schools provide excellent options to Colorado students.
TIME highlighting a Colorado school and choosing Rao for this huge honor elevates the state and the talented, amazing students who learn here.