Interview with a Time Kid of the Year

If you’re familiar with eCYBERMISSION, you know one thing to be true: our students are outstanding. From their intellect to their creativity, year after year, they continuously blow us away here at Mission Control. This year was no exception. For the first time in history, Time magazine named its “Kid of the Year” and who was that kid? Gitanjali Rao, a sophomore from Lone Tree, Colorado and a former eCYBERMISSION National Finalist and participant. It’s an honor that would impress anyone, but here at Mission Control we’re feeling a bit like proud parents. We decided to catch up with Gitanjali, see how she feels about the prestigious title, and how her experience with eCYBERMISSION and STEM has forged her path for the future.

First, let’s learn a little bit more about her…

Gitanjali is a sophomore in STEM School Highlands Ranch and lives in Lone Tree, CO.

She was recognized as America's Top Young Scientist and received an EPA Presidential award for inventing her device "Tethys"—an early lead detection tool. Gitanjali is also the inventor of “Epione”—a device for early diagnosis of prescription opioid addiction using genetic engineering, and "Kindly"—an anti-cyberbullying service using AI and Natural Language processing.

She was honored as Forbes “30 Under 30 in Science” in 2019 and TIME’s “Top Young Innovator” for her innovations and STEM workshops she conducts globally, which has inspired thirty-eight thousand students in the last two years across four continents. In her sessions, she shares her own process of innovation that can be used by students all over the world to develop their own ideas and solutions. She is an experienced TED speaker and often presents in global and corporate forums on innovation and the importance of STEM.

She is an author of the book, "Young Innovator's Guide to STEM" which will be released in March 2021, and was recently honored as Time Kid of the Year 2020 for her community service and innovations. Gitanjali is a glider pilot and loves flying. Her hobbies include playing the piano, Indian classical dancing and singing, swimming, fencing, and baking.

How long have you been interested in STEM?

I don’t remember an exact timeframe, but I can say as long as I remember. My mom would visually show us experiments and my uncle gave me an experiment kit, which I was glued to and I still use that if I want to learn a concept by seeing how it works.

Why do you feel STEM is so important?

The problems of tomorrow need an approach that focuses on people, process, policies and technology. One cannot do without another. For example, bringing equality in education and access to education needs communities working together adopting an educational policy and using technology to reach out to millions of students who may not have all the resources I have.

How did you first hear about eCYBERMISSION?

I heard about eCYBERMISSION when my teacher Ms. Simi Basu introduced us to the challenge in 7th grade. I had just moved schools and moved from Nashville. I volunteered for an organization called Children’s Kindness Network from 4th grade and had an idea that I wanted to develop, but didn’t get a chance and Ms. Basu’s help and guidance helped me explore it further.

What made you decide to participate in eCYBERMISSION?

I have tried different challenges, but this one was interesting due to the opportunity to get grant funds to implement it. I have tried several ones which provided mentors, feedback or prize money, but this challenge is unique for change makers who want to make a difference and have the drive and motivation to keep going. I have mentioned in my book about the advantages of this challenge and how middle and early high school students can be part of it to learn team-work, collaboration and implementation plans. Thanks to eCYBERMISSION, my vision of an anti-cyberbullying service evolved from an idea when I was a part of Children’s Kindness Network to an actual global service that is available today for anybody to use.

What was your favorite project you’ve done?

While I start all of this as a small project for a challenge, I keep working on it for awareness and feedback so that even if I do not have the resources to implement it, universities and organizations can further build on it and take actions. All of them are my favorites in their own category, because they all are addressing important problems in our society and I always believe awareness of problems go hand in hand with solutions, which motivates me further to work on the solutions or at least bring it to a point where others can develop on it.

Did you think you would make it to our National Judging & Educational Event (NJ&EE) when you first started out with your team?

I don’t think we knew we would even make it to the regionals, but the timelines and deadlines were motivations for me to keep driving the momentum. Every challenge I enter into gives me that motivation to complete a big chunk of the work with a deadline. This fuels further encouragement and motivation to keep working. We are all students and with school work, sometimes our priority changes, so challenges such as eCYBERMISSION are a good way to remind us that there is a way to make a difference in society and there are people from NSTA or AEOP who have done this and are willing to support by bringing a community of educators and teachers from different fields together.

Once you made it, what was your favorite part of NJ&EE?

The activities in real-world and shadowing experts was an experience that I will never forget. I believe the eye opening part was that I never knew how an Army engineer or scientist career would look like. If we do not see somebody in that career path, it is difficult for us students to imagine ourselves there. The experiences provided there and the friendships we made were invaluable and I now know there are other opportunities out there that I can explore.

In participating for so many years, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned along the way in participating in eCYBERMISSION?

The most important lesson I learned was to pitch our own product and to create a grant proposal. I have never done one before and it is a skill-set for all of us students on how to request for funding. The project management skills, the detailed plans and how our plans align with eCYBERMISSION goals were skills that were hard for me as a 8th grade student, but once I developed it, I could reuse the plans for many of my other initiatives.

The next important lesson was the plan to use funding in the right way that provides the most return on investment. I learned the term “ROI” during the implementation on how to develop, market and brand a product keeping users in mind. I learned top down and bottom up marketing approaches while understanding target market and user needs. These are important skills for an entrepreneur and eCYBERMISSION with the STEM-In-Action grant enabled us to learn these hands-on.

I have a lot of lessons learned from working with a team. We had fun, but we had our conflicts too on continuing to work after the grant. Working in an academic setting with teams for a grade is very different while working with team members in initiatives that help humanity. Not all team members have the same time or energy to work on a single initiative for multiple years at a time. eCYBERMISSION allowed me to experience that and learn from this.

Was there any one eCM experience that sticks out to? If so, tell us about it.

The importance of physical fitness that goes hand in hand with creativity and innovation was demonstrated during the finals. I learned the need to keep myself healthy and active.

If you could change anything about the program, what would it be?

A shorter-time frame for STEM-In-Action grant. Most students participating are high school students, so one year seems long to keep the attention span. A shorter timeframe to implement would possibly bring the most productivity from all team members. Flexibility in allowing team members to leave the team if their priorities change would be valuable for those who want to continue.

I feel another important improvement would be to limit the application to students who have not had the opportunity to be in the finals in the past. This would allow new students to get the experience of regionals, finals or grant implementations, and achieve the mission of eCM.  This should also inject new ideas and approaches to problem solving that have not been tried before.

What do you think is the key to succeeding at eCYBERMISSION?

Determination and communication. Starting with an idea, but having a plan beyond eCYBERMISSION and a vision. Most importantly, staying focused on the objective of making a difference in our community through our efforts is the key to succeed.

What is the best piece of advice you could give to another student if they’re thinking about participating in eCYBERMISSION?

Start with an idea and develop it enough to validate a problem and solution. Bring awareness to the problem you are working with a goal to achieve a change in action even if your solution is not completely developed. eCYBERMISSION aims to enable us to recognize the use of STEM as a catalyst for social change and being part of it means that we are trying our best to make the change.

In your opinion, how can students continue to learn about STEM during COVID times?

If we have internet access, there is no excuse to not learn more about what we want to do. In addition, MIT App Inventor is working on publishing a guide that would make it easier on students and my own book “A young Innovator’s Guide to STEM” shares a prescribed 5-step process with tools that students can use to keep working on their ideas. There are many other resources that will help jumpstart our learning.

Will you participate in any other AEOP programs such as GEMS or JSHS?

I am looking to learn about these programs in detail soon.  I am working on my next research which I will possibly apply for JSHS in Dec 2021.The more feedback I get on my initiatives, the better it is for me to learn and keep working on it.  I will definitely explore GEMS, and  will share it with everybody who is inspired to make a change.

Are there any other things you’d like to share about your eCM experience?

For me personally, the amount of effort and time my computer science teacher Ms. Basu put into this along with ensuring formalities are taken care of and travelling with us to be part of the award ceremony was a learning experience. I cannot thank her enough for this and I learned a lot from her. Teachers, mentors and volunteers who sacrificed their own time with their families in summer to be part of the NJEE Nationals with students showed the community spirit to develop and enable a group of youngsters for the future. Many of the mentors were parents, but for our group, our teacher was our mentor and if every educator and teacher selflessly puts in the effort like Ms. Basu, I think we will all grow up to learn our responsibility to give back and the volunteers deserve recognition as much as students do.

Who do you think has had greatest impact in encouraging your love of STEM?

My parents, my teachers and my mentors have been my biggest influencers and have always introduced me to concepts no matter my age. eCYBERMISSION does a very similar effort of introducing us to the design thinking process, testing, prototyping, grant application, future detailed planning including managing the financials even though we are middle school students. The value eCYBERMISSION brings to learn these skill-sets earlier cannot be measured easily.

What do you think has been your greatest achievement?

I believe my ability to inspire and share the process of innovation to students across the world has received the most positive feedback from schools and universities. I hope to bring above a change where innovation is introduced much earlier in our education curriculum so students can start their own journey.

Tell us how you found out about being nominated as Time’s FIRST EVER “Kid of the Year” and how it made you feel receiving such an honor.

I’m honored, humbled, and beyond excited to be named Kid of the Year! There’s something so exciting about being able to share your story and I’m representing students from all walks of life, no matter their gender, their age, or where they come from. I’m hoping that I can prove anyone can be an innovator.

Time and Nickelodeon have done an amazing job highlighting optimism, kindness, positivity, especially in these tough times, highlighting the work of our generation. Each of us have different talents and we try to light up the community with whatever we can. 

The award instills the confidence for our generation that we can all start with one step at a time.

What is your plan for the future?

I want to keep working on all the solutions that I have started and get it to a point where it impacts others in a positive way while sharing my knowledge. I would be grateful if I can influence educational policies for considering STEM and Innovation as a mandatory subject in elementary education. This will not only enable the students, but also enable our teachers and educators to be ready for an ever evolving future.

Well, this certainly sounds like a bright future to look forward to! We are so proud of Gitanjali and all of our students’ hard work and success. The importance of STEM continues to be a part of our mission and we always strive to encourage students to explore how STEM works in their world and how it can better their communities and beyond. Whoever you are, wherever you are, join the mission and be one step closer towards your bright future – just like Gitanjali.

Colleen Minan
AEOP Communications & Marketing Specialist


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