FARMINGTON, Conn. — A Farmington high schooler won a national award for a coding program she created for youth with autism, a passion project that has already reached hundreds of students.

Sreenidi Bala, 16, is the creator of Code for All Minds, a computer science program she specifically designed for neurodivergent children and young adults with the goal of providing them opportunities to pursue STEM careers.

Bala, a junior at Farmington High School, was named the Prudential Emerging Visionaries Employees’ Choice Award winner and recently received $10,000 from Prudential Financial to expand her efforts. The honor was part of a national program that awards 25 young people who created innovative solutions to financial and societal challenges in their communities.

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She began creating Code for All Minds in 2020 solely in her free time, as a way to fill the opportunity hole she said she has long noticed among students with learning disabilities. Bala’s childhood best friend has autism, and she credits him as the inspiration for this project.

“I saw a lot of gap in the opportunities he had,” Bala said.

Growing up alongside her best friend and being deeply involved in classrooms for children with special needs since she was in fifth grade, she saw certain inequities firsthand, and became more and more passionate about making a difference in the community and doing more than just tutoring these students or teaching coding, Bala said.

“They don’t have the same level of opportunities and there’s only certain places in society that accommodate them and give them a seat at the table,” she said.

So, she decided to take matters into her own hands, and create a freely accessible program that would change that perception, she said, and give them to chance to learn the basic skills needed for a career, or even just a hobby, in computer science or STEM.

“Digital skills are so important in the world we live in,” Bala said. And the skills they learn in Code for All Minds are some she hopes they can carry with them throughout their lives.

“This obviously doesn’t solve all the problems and provide them with all of the resources but it gives them a start — somewhere to find their interests,” she said.

The program contains aspects of typical coding software lesson plans, like algorithms, functions and conditionals. But what makes her project different is the approach it takes to be easily understandable for neurodivergent kids, such as extra video animations specifically suited for learners with autism and a comprehensive guidance page, Bala said.

“Because it could feel very daunting,” she said. “There’s not a lot of people or teachers or a lot of resources out there for autism students.”

The students with special needs at Farmington High School helped her create the program, as she drew from their feedback as well as the expertise of paraeducators and parents to figure out what worked best for their needs.

“Just getting them on that track and really believing in them and valuing them just as much and giving them that confidence, it makes all the difference,” she said.

Code for All Minds is now available and implemented in the special needs course curriculum at the high school, she said.

And seeing how much the students learned and how fast they were picking up the skills once she launched the program, Bala knew she wanted to reach even more students.

“This is my passion project,” she said, “and what I want to continue to work on for my whole life.”

Even though it took her three years to get to this point with 12 lesson plans in the program, she said she’s far from finished.

“This is still just like a starting point,” Bala said. “There’s so much more I want to do with it.”

With the money she won from Prudential Financial, she will be able to expand her program even more across Connecticut and throughout the country, and possibly provide technology supplies for students that need it, she said.

“I just want to make sure that as many autism students have access to not only the curriculum, but the devices and other resources that come along with it,” she said.

Bala said the Prudential award has also helped her project gain more visibility. Already, Code for All Minds seems to have expanded past Farmington High School, as she said hundreds of users have logged on.

And not only has the program been able to help eliminate barriers in a population of young people close to her, but the process of creating it and watching these results has changed her life too, she said.

“It’s taught me just to have more empathy and gratitude on a daily basis. When you zoom out a little and just see how many opportunities you’re awarded in your life and how many people believe in you along the way,” Bala said.

Code for All Minds has allowed her to see how so many of these students with disabilities can thrive when learning these skills, and has given her a new outlook on what the STEM fields should look like, prioritizing equity, she said.

“And I think that sense of gratefulness and empathy for the student who’s sitting next to you, who may not look just like you who may not think the same way as you is the most important thing because at the end of the day, we’re all human,” Bala said. “And we all deserve the same kindness, respect, belief, and unwavering support. So I think this has just taught me how important it is to believe in everyone and truly root for everyone to succeed.”

© 2024 Journal Inquirer
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