TIME magazine has announced the magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year recognition. The 2020 title goes to scientist and inventor 15-year-old Gitanjali Rao. This new distinction of an honor bestowed by the magazine was created after the 2019 TIME Person of the Year turned out to be Greta Thunberg, the precocious Swedish teenager. TIME worked in partnership with Nickelodeon.
Thunberg was the youngest person and the first under 25 years old to receive the recognition in the 92 years. This year’s recipient of the Kid of the Year award is, thankfully, not living off of political action but actually contributing to artificial intelligence and carbon nanotube sensor technology. Miss Rao is not encouraging school children to skip school on Fridays and protest in the streets for climate change but is working on addressing cyberbullying and water contamination.
Actress Angelina Jolie, a TIME contributing editor and special envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, interviewed Gitanjali Rao for the magazine. She said she tries to encourage other kids to zero in on a single problem society faces, instead of trying to solve every world problem.
“I think more than anything right now, we just need to find that one thing we’re passionate about and solve it,” she said in her interview. “Even if it’s something as small as, I want to find an easy way to pick up litter. Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big.”
Miss Rao was chosen from a group of five finalists, including herself. The process of choosing a winner began with a field of 5,000 nominees.
Time magazine chose five finalists total, with the other four being 14-year-old Tyler Gordon from San Jose, Calif., 14-year-old Jordan Reeves from Columbia, Mo., 10-year-old Bellen Woodard from Leesburg, Va., and 16-year-old Ian McKenna from Austin, Texas.
Gordon has painted more than 500 portraits of Black people who inspire him, Reeves designed toys better suited for kids with disabilities, Woodward launched a crayon line for the wide variety of skin colors and McKenna started a garden to help feed families unable to afford enough food.
All of the finalists will become a time for kids kid reporter, be able to contribute to Time and obtain a cash prize from Viacom, which owns Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon will air a Time’s “Kid of the Year” special on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
She’s created an app for teenagers to detect cyberbullying. This is a hot topic with teens, a generation who has grown up with cell phones in their hands. Mean kids have always existed but their reach is much farther online. She told Angelina Jolie that she put out a survey to parents, teachers, and students, expecting students to respond that they didn’t want to be micromanaged. Instead, she said, most teens looked at the app as a chance to learn from their mistakes.
It’s a service called Kindly—there’s an app and a Chrome extension—which is able to detect cyberbullying at an early stage, based on artificial-intelligence technology. I started to hard-code in some words that could be considered bullying, and then my engine took those words and identified words that are similar. You type in a word or phrase, and it’s able to pick it up if it’s bullying, and it gives you the option to edit it or send it the way it is. The goal is not to punish. As a teenager, I know teenagers tend to lash out sometimes. Instead, it gives you the chance to rethink what you’re saying so that you know what to do next time around.
Rao decided to share in her successes and holds workshops to encourage others to find what interests them. She teaches others how to go from an idea to produce a finished product. She said she has mentored 30,000 students.
I just looked at what worked for me and decided to share it with everyone else. So I made this process that I use for everything now: it’s observe, brainstorm, research, build, communicate. It started with a simple presentation and lesson plans, and then I started adding labs and contests that students could do. Now I’ve partnered with rural schools, girls in STEM organizations, museums all across the world, and bigger organizations like Shanghai International Youth Science and Technology group and the Royal Academy of Engineering in London to run innovation workshops.
The students that I work with, they just don’t know where to start. I think that if you give them that spark that they can then build off of, then that changes everything. That means one more person in this world wants to come up with ideas to solve problems.
At the end of every workshop, everyone has something that they can start working on. If you can do this in 45 minutes to an hour, imagine what you can do if you spend months and months working on it. I’m so excited when I get an email like, “Hey, I attended your workshop four months ago and here’s my finished product, I really love it, it’s a shoe that calls 911.”
She is currently working on an easy way to help detect bio-contaminants in water—things like parasites.
I don’t know that we need another ‘Best’ award, especially in a time when kids receive a trophy for everything but she sounds like an impressive young woman. I do wonder where she gets so much time to do all the outside mentoring and activities at the age of 15 while pursuing her own projects. She is, however, a welcome relief from the person who motivated TIME to make a new category just for kids.