Investing in the next generation of tech leaders

Before Ispeeta Ahmed became a founder of her own website and organization, and the winner of multiple university scholarships, she was just a curious high school student who wanted to learn about tech and didn't know where to start.

Ispeeta Ahmed
Pictured above: Ispeeta Ahmed

Ispeeta, who went to a small high school in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, did not have access to coding classes at school. "I was thinking, 'Okay, I know technology's at the forefront, but what am I going to do?'" she said. Then Ispeeta discovered Canada Learning Code's Teen Ambassador Program, or TAP.

TAP is a leadership program for teenagers across Canada who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). With support from the RBC Foundation, TAP offers free, biweekly programs supporting teenagers to build websites, apps and games. It also encourages them to bring these skills back to their communities by launching their own coding clubs.

TAP is helping the next generation of tech leaders succeed

By offering coding workshops, networking opportunities, professional development and leadership skills training, TAP is helping the next generation of tech leaders succeed.

Building confidence and community

"That first year, it really made me feel more confident," Ispeeta said.

Now, she is a first-year engineering student at Dalhousie University and plans to go into biomedical engineering.

"I learned HTML and CSS through Canada Learning Code, and through that I was able to make my own website and then founded my own organization in high school called Connect2Change, where I was able to get writers from all around the world to write about world issues," Ispeeta said.

She also created coding clubs and taught student teachers at St. Francis Xavier University.

Harsehaj Dhami
Pictured above: Harsehaj Dhami

According to Harsehaj Dhami, a current teen ambassador, TAP has boosted her confidence to work as part of a team and approach people with different skill sets for help and partnership.

"I actually came from a background where I did already have some prior experience with programming and developing algorithms," Harsehaj said. "I was learning by myself in my bedroom doing courses, and there was no one else doing it alongside me, and I felt kind of isolated in that whole process."

TAP brought Harsehaj a sense of community. With TAP's support, she has won hackathons and grants—and founded CodeSpire, a non-profit organization delivering technological education to underprivileged youth.

I felt kind of isolated in that whole learning process

Harsehaj, who has a special interest in Web3, blockchain and AI, plans to combine her tech skills with a passion for mental health and neuroscience. She recently developed an algorithm that analyzes brainwave data to develop risk assessments for depression.

"This is really close to my heart, because in the South Asian community, mental health is very taboo," Harsehaj said.

"The depression misdiagnosis rate is 65%—how can you expect someone to think 'Wow, that's a really big problem' when the stats aren't showing that?"

Eventually, she plans to launch her own health tech startup.

Filling education gaps

Many people are intimidated at the prospect of learning to code. That's a major challenge when it comes to computer science education.

"We hear these big words—we hear 'algorithm', we hear 'guided structures', we hear 'website'—and we think, 'Oh my gosh, that's such a big thing, I can't do this,'" Ispeeta said.

Computer education could be delivered in a more engaging way

"But Canada Learning Code has made information so accessible in little bite-sized pieces, through our coding workshops, through encouragement, through the community that we've built, that it no longer felt daunting, it no longer felt like I was someone that was trying to break into code—I was someone who was actually able to do it."

She believes computer science education could often be delivered in a more engaging way. "It's very, very robotic—and that is exactly the opposite of tech," Ispeeta said. "Tech requires innovation; it requires you to think critically." Canada Learning Code, she said, understands that. Harsehaj agrees.

"It's really just tying that real-world aspect to it because tech is the real world," she said. She believes it is crucial that students understand how they can use tech skills in the real world, and particularly to have an impact on their communities.

"The motivation doesn't come from wanting to build tech skills—it comes from wanting to make a difference," Harsehaj said.

Students in this year's TAP program are currently working on building apps using newly developed UX/UI (user experience/user interface) skills.

Saying “yes”

For young people looking to learn more about tech, Harsehaj recommends connecting it to things they are already passionate about. "Tie it to something around your personal interest, because tech doesn't have to be a whole different, separate interest—tech is so intersectional, it's so interdisciplinary," she said.

"For me, it's neuroscience and brain computer interfaces, and mental health and things like that—that's how I became personally invested in tech." Ispeeta recommends other teenagers find like-minded people who will support them along their educational journeys. "Join communities that are encouraging you to think differently," she said. But, she added, "You have to be the one that steps up—you have to be the one that puts your foot in the door and says, 'Okay, you know what, I am enough, I can do this.'"

Join communities that encourage you to think differently

That is when doors will really begin to open, she said. "The number of opportunities that I've had, just because I said yes, is unfathomable."

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