“Open Sesame,” the immortal words of Ali Baba, is a phrase frequently used to represent the secret code to open any door. In Irvine, two high schoolers have taken this common phrase to represent their own kind of code, a code that could help underprivileged children push their way out of poverty and homelessness, and open the door to a future of their own design. Their code, however, is a bit more complex than a couple of magic words.
Last July, Milan Narula and Katherine McPhie, students from University High School, created Open Sesame: Coding for Kids, a non-profit organization focused on teaching computer coding to children in homeless and domestic violence shelters. That’s right, coding. These aren’t the typing lessons and educational computer games that most children might get in school. What Open Sesame is providing is training in actual computer science. These children are learning the process of providing a computer sequences of instructions to automate the performance of tasks, something the vast majority of adults know little to nothing about.
Upon entering one of Katherine and Milan’s makeshift classrooms at the shelters they provide their services to, you are immediately hit with the wave of excitement given off by the children attending the workshop. And some of these kids are young – children as young as 5 or 6 attend these workshops to learn the building blocks of code, although Open Sesame is built for children and teens of all ages, with a variety of levels and lesson progressions. It only helps that this organization is run by teens and young adults, from freshmen in high school through local college students. It adds another layer of excitement for the children in attendance – they are being given an opportunity to spend time with people close to their age, finding mentorship and friendship through education and opportunity. They aren’t being talked at by teachers in school, they are learning side by side with those whom they might share similar interests.
The programs that are being used in the classroom are designed to maintain the attention of the students using them, especially for those in the younger age range. Utilizing popular cartoon characters from well-known entities such as Angry Birds, Ice Age and Minecraft, the significant educational impacts of these programs are enshrouded in fun. Some of the younger kids may not even totally realize what it is they are really learning, until the skills they pick up come into play as they grow older. There are shrieks of excitement in the room when someone successfully completes a lesson or a task, and many of the children don’t want to leave when their parents come to get them. It is fun, but in a world that is increasingly growing in its reliance on computers, it is also giving these children important lessons that could help them find jobs as they grow up and enter the workforce.
Milan and Katherine have garnered a great deal of attention for all their efforts both in coding and community service. Katherine has received the Presidential Volunteer Service Award Gold Medal from the Orange County Rescue Mission, is an honored Disneyland Luminary, and recently became a national winner of the NCWiT Computing Award. Milan was recently recognized by School on Wheels as their Volunteer of the Month for her work. The young women also recently received an award from the California State Assembly for their success and commitment to Open Sesame. In less than a year since they began, Open Sesame has been joined by over 120 volunteers from 10 high schools and colleges across Irvine and its surrounding cities, and recently, thanks to a grant from the GO Campaign, the organization has expanded its efforts to five additional shelters, bringing their total up to eight shelters across Irvine, Tustin, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Placentia and Midway City.
For more information on this incredible, Irvine-grown program, or to find out how you can volunteer or support, check out their website at www.codeopensesame.com. As the organization expands, their need for tools and equipment also grows. If you have any laptop or desktop computers that you are looking to donate, you can reach out to them at CodeOpenSesame@gmail.com.
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