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While volunteering at local homeless shelters, University High School students Katherine McPhie and Milan Narula witnessed the struggles of poverty firsthand. Yet they didn’t just feel sorry for the children they met; they found a way to empower them. In part by applying knowledge gained through UCI programs and leveraging UCI student volunteers, they have built a service to help prepare these children for future success.

Code Open Sesame
“During my first year of volunteering at the Orange County Rescue Mission,” says McPhie, “I got to know several of the young kids [and] was struck by how many obstacles they face as they try to break free from the cycle of poverty.” She explains that a sign on the shelter’s cafeteria wall — “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime” — struck a chord with her. “I couldn’t shake the idea that I could teach skills to those kids that would empower them to free themselves from the trappings of poverty.” So she decided to teach computer programming. “Coding is how kids can be creators and not just consumers of their world,” she reasoned.

Narula felt the same way. “When I first started tutoring homeless kids, I realized that they were always behind academically.” Furthermore, she wasn’t sure how they could apply what they were learning to improve their economic status. “I remember working on a social studies project with one sixth-grade girl, and all I could think was, ‘Why does she need to know about hunter-gatherer societies?’ I wanted to give these students some ‘real-world’ skills.” So when she was later invited by McPhie to a coding session at the OC Rescue Mission, Narula quickly viewed coding as that “real-world” skill.

Soon after, the two friends created Code Open Sesame, which trains high school and college students to teach coding and computer skills to children at local shelters for homeless people, victims of domestic violence and those in foster care. According to McPhie and Narula, the organization’s name comes from the Arabian Nights folktale in which knowing the secret code, “Open Sesame,” is the difference between life and death. “We want these kids to have the secret code. That’s the only way to give them a path toward a better future.”

Katherine McPhie (left) and Milan Narula with two girls they taught during a coding workshop in November 2018.

Support from UCI
When McPhie and Narula started Code Open Sesame this past summer, their first priority was to recruit quality volunteers. “We knew that we’d need a ton of them,” explains McPhie. “Shelters can be noisy and even chaotic, and kids in kindergarten through eighth grade are all tossed in there together.” To teach children this young, and in that environment, they needed an almost one-to-one tutor-to-student ratio.

“Of course, the first place we thought to look was UCI’s Women in Information and Computer Science —WICS,” says Narula. Both girls still remember the many activities they did with WICS back in middle school, hosted either at UCI or in their school’s computer lab. “We are very fortunate to live in the UCI area, so we’ve benefited from many UCI-sponsored programs through the years [such as FABcamp, UCI Math ExpLR, a Girls IgniteIT workshop and the Athena Olympiad].” In fact, it was in 2015, when Computer Science Professor Sandy Irani and WICS Project Chair Medhavi Sikaria ’16 taught a coding workshop for middle school girls, that Narula first discovered what coding is and how much she enjoyed it.

Milan Narula (left) at a WICS coding workshop in 2015 and Katherine McPhie at the Athena Olympiad at UCI in April 2018, holding a gift card that she won at the event.

“We couldn’t imagine better teachers than our WICS mentors, so we reached out to WICS from the beginning, and they were very supportive.” WICS Committee Member Dianne Ison used Facebook to recruit volunteers, which is how Monserrat Palabrica, a fourth-year computer science major, first learned about the program.

“One of my friends found out about summer volunteering opportunities with Code Open Sesame through the UCI WICS Facebook page and we decided to volunteer together,” Palabrica recalls. “The opportunity to teach kids about computer science is amazing…. I get a chance to make their first introduction to computer science fun and exciting, so maybe their interest will continue to grow even after our time together.”

One of the first posts on the WICS Facebook page about Code Open Sesame’s need for volunteer tutors.

Palabrica was so impressed with the program that she is now a 2018-19 board member. Remembering the moment a passionate coding tutor fueled her interest in computer science during her junior year in high school, Palabrica says she hopes to help the program grow so more kids are given the same opportunity to fall in love with coding that she had in school.

Another UCI volunteer is Ami Patel, who is double majoring in business information management and computer science and is president of UC Irvine Circle K, a community service organization. Volunteering at Code Open Sesame is one of the newest service projects offered to UCI Circle K members, and Patel decided to check it out because it allows her to serve her community using her coding skills. “I also volunteered at Code Open Sesame because I thought it was interesting to teach kids how to code at such an early age.” She didn’t learn to code until college, but she says the online tools at that the volunteers use make it easy to learn. “I was most fascinated by the gaming characteristics uses [to] teach the children.”

Code Open Sesame currently has about a dozen volunteers who are students in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) as well as a handful of volunteers with other technology-related majors, such as electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. When asked about future plans, McPhie says they “absolutely” plan to continue recruiting UCI students. “Not only are they reliable and hard-working, but they’re also the most enthusiastic and fun-loving volunteers.”

This fall, Code Open Sesame provided 350 additional hours of instruction to 100 kids in four shelters. During the month of November alone, they hosted six different coding workshops, teaching 75 children and providing 170 hours of instruction.

“We’re filling a need on both sides,” says McPhie. “We’re giving practical skills to disadvantaged youth, skills they’ll be able to use to help themselves out of poverty. But we’re also enabling college and high school students to contribute to their communities, to understand that they can make a difference even though they’re young, and to love volunteering so that it becomes something they’ll do for the rest of their lives.” And UCI students seem more than happy to give back.

“We couldn’t be more grateful for UCI,” says Narula. “Thank you for encouraging your faculty and students to spread their love of STEM to young girls and for being strong role models for us. We hope to continue working with UCI and its students.”

Shani Murray