The last time we mentioned Pi515 in this space was to announce a donation of more than $10,000 from Monetery to help the free, year-long after-school program further its mission of educating underserved central Iowa refugee students on basic computer programming.

With Monetery less than three months away, we needed to catch up.

And we found the perfect opportunity.

Nancy Mwirotsi, founder of Pi515, was honored at the Iowa State Capitol on Feb. 25 during the third annual Black History Month Celebration Day on the Hill. Mwirotsi was one of four recipients of the “Hidden Figure” award and was selected for the work she is doing in the STEM field.

With Pi515, Mwirotsi works with as many as 90 students in grades 7-12 each year on computer programming, career preparation and financial literacy for life after high school. Mwirotsi said she accomplished her goal in 2018 of recruiting and introducing 100 new students to technology, each learning the basic programming languages HTML, CSS and basic JavaScript.

Those students are now learning to build their own websites and competing in app building challenges.

The other 2019 Hidden Figure Award winners were:

  • Kameron Middlebrooks, President of Des Moines NAACP
  • Rick Singleton, Good Neighbor Advocate at the YMCA of Greater Des Moines
  • Dr. Kimberly Wayne, Founder and Executive Director of Jewels Academy

Award winners were presented with a certificate from Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines in the Capitol Rotunda after an hour-long ceremony.

“These are individuals making a difference in our communities,” Abdul-Samad said.

After the ceremony, Mwirotsi spoke with Dwolla about Pi515, what the group has been working on since Monetery in 2018 and what her goals are for 2019.

In 2019, Mwirotsi said her high achieving students will start teaching middle school students about robotics, drones and building mobile apps. She hopes to move into a larger space for Pi515 to accommodate more students and ideally make its first hire.

Below is our full conversation, which has been edited for clarity and conciseness:

JA: How does it feel being honored at the Iowa State Capitol?

NM: I never expect anything like this so when I got the email, I just showed up!

JA: Can you you update us on Pi515 since the last Monetery?

NM: We are building that tech pipeline and getting high school students ready for a career by teaching them HTML CSS. We have done some Java too and they are building apps.

Then in January of 2019, we became a community partner for the “Dear Future” campaign with Coca Cola and are starting a youth program. So we are taking the kids who are excelling in our pipeline and having them teach middle school.

So we have these students who are doing fantastically well going back into the schools to teach other kids. The kids get paid a stipend, so we’re helping them build leadership skills and giving them empowerment. All while helping middle school students explore the world of STEM.

So I’m very proud of the amount of production that has come from our kids. Then they come back asking to learn more.

JA: What are the middle school students learning?

NM: Our first class for every kid is HTML CSS and maybe we have them do two or three lines of coding in JavaScript. We are trying to find a good curriculum for Java that is project based, so if you know anyone who knows, we’re looking.

JA: A big push for you is to expose kids to businesses, why is that important for you?

NM: A child cannot be what they don’t see. And if you show them the seriousness and how professional those places look, they will aspire to be that.

For us, showing them what the industry looks like is very important to us.

Later in April, we are going to the Hy-Vee technology center and taking 130 AP Computer Science students. Those kids will never know what’s out there unless someone gives them an opportunity.

JA: Looking ahead, what are your main objectives for the rest of the year?

NM: My dream is having our own space, we are still in the church where we are fostering creation.

Most people who have been successful in tech have done so because they learn by doing things, not just going to school. So we’re working to build a space that creates that opportunity.

I want to have a center where we have kids come and learn these simple technical skills, so when they go into industries for interviews and internships, they’ve already been in that environment where they are actually creating things and speaking the language. Making these kids easily employable, that’s my biggest push this year.

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