New Milford teen starts chapter of nonprofit to encourage girls in STEM fields

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

NEW MILFORD — As a first-generation immigrant from India, 18-year-old Saumya Khan said she has had to be brave and confident since she was a child.

“Whether that was helping my parents with their tax returns at age 8, or being looked at differently just because I didn’t look like the other kids,” she said. “If I never stood up for myself, then I would just be constantly talked over or looked down upon by peers. I had to be brave and confident in myself in order for others to see me as an equal.”

Bravery, along being a good friend, kindness, courage, and learning from failure are some values taught in Girls Who Code, an international nonprofit organization for which Khan plans to start a chapter in town. The program, which is free, will be held at the New Milford Youth Agency beginning Friday. While the program’s target audience is underprivileged and underrepresented minority girls, and nonbinary students, it’s open to all girls in grades 3 to 12.

“Coding is what makes a computer program run,” said Khan, who graduated from New Milford High School in 2021 and is now a freshman at Naugatuck Community College. “It’s a set of instructions that people write in order for a program to run the way it does. It is involved with virtually every computer science project.”

According to its website, Girls Who Code focuses on gender diversity and young women, who are historically underrepresented in computer science and technology fields. As program facilitator, Khan will teach coding, while at the same time, teaching strong morals.

Khan said the Girls Who Code program nurtures a sisterhood among young girls, which, she said, is very important.

“We live in a society where women are constantly pitted against each other. Instead of competing with one another, developing healthy friendships and confiding with each other is, what I believe, much healthier for women as a whole,” she said.

A portion of Girls Who Code meetings will be teaching sisterhood-oriented activities.

“An example of one kind of activity is having girls share what they would like to change about the world and having a discussion about each girls’ idea,” Khan said. “The young women are able to actively listen to each other and have an opportunity to relate with one another.”

Additionally, Khan said Girls Who Code promotes activism — and does so with a project.

“Students are allowed to choose any topic to make their collective project on,” Khan said. “One of the options is making your project about a cause important to you. Students then use computer science to explain their passion.”

Khan said she feels confident to teach the program because she has been working with kids since she was 14. She’s an intern at the Village Center for the Arts in town, where she works on 3D printing and helps kids with art projects. She volunteered at a day care facility for two years.

While at New Milford High School, Khan was on the editorial board of The Piper, the school’s literary and art magazine.

At Naugatuck, Khan, who double majors in computer science and art, takes classes in calculus, chemistry, western civilization, English composition and two-dimensional design.

She would like to become an AI (artificial intelligence) engineer.

“An AI engineer is responsible for building and training a network of algorithms that make up artificial intelligence,” she said. “Making a machine work like the human brain is an incredible concept. I would like to make a machine that helps humans.”

Khan is part of the organization called “Dear Asian Youth,” which, according to its website, is a group of Asian youths striving to uplift marginalized communities through education, activism and celebration.

One woman in the technology field who Khan said she’s especially inspired by is Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer.

“She wrote the first machine learning algorithm for a computer on paper, when the machine was just a blueprint,” Khan said. “This means, she wrote a program before the machine to execute the program even existed.”

Khan said she’s passionate about the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and is eager to encourage other girls to pursue them, through Girls Who Code.

“GWC is a space made by women, for women, in a field that is male dominated. It’s important for girls to have a voice for themselves to express their passion with other young women in order to combat loneliness in a field where they may not meet other women. It’s an opportunity for girls to cultivate their interest and ideas without a fear of being talked over or ignored,” she said. “This program really does emphasize, ‘We can do this. We have a place, too.’ This a safe space for girls to be able to freely express that passion.”

Girls Who Code classes will be held weekly on Fridays from 4 to 5 p.m. Each session runs for about 12 weeks. By the end of each session, girls will accomplish a Girls Who Code project. Projects are customized to girls’ age and skill level. At the end of each session, girls will present what they learned. For more information, contact the New Milford Youth Agency, 2 Pickett District Road, New Milford, at 860-210-2030.

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