As the tech industry explodes with demand for creative and skilled minds, programs dedicated to teaching the next generation computer science skills are popping up around the country. Hawai‘i isn’t the first place that comes to mind for most when it comes to tech, so it should be no surprise that here at home, a technology education nonprofit called Purple Mai‘a is taking a different approach.
“We’re particularly interested in bringing access to coding and computer science education to students who wouldn’t otherwise have [it],” explains co-founder and coordinator Kelsey Amos.
Now in its third year, Purple Mai‘a works with about 100 keiki across nine schools in a variety of programs; some after-school, some electives, and a recently launched online course.
Purple Mai‘a’s philosophy of computer science grounded in culture begins with its founders.
Kelsey is a PhD candidate in English, Donavan Kealoha is a venture capitalist, and Olin Lagon is a software developer and entrepreneur. Together, they have channeled their unique strengths into a unified vision for a Hawaiian-based computer science education.
Also rooted in Hawaiian values, their name is based on an ‘ōlelo no‘eau that describes a person like a banana tree. “Purple Mai‘a” refers to the flower of the tree. “If you take care of the plant at that stage it blossoms and becomes productive,” Donavan tells us.
“That’s sort of the same thing as a person. If you catch them at the right point in time and mālama them, they become a productive member of society.”
Keeping in mind the rapid development and relative youth of the field, Purple Mai‘a constantly tests and reevaluates its approach.
“We do a lot of reading of the latest research in developing classroom behavior and try to apply that,” says Donavan. “Success is seeing kids react to what we learn and apply it on a day-in-day-out basis. Small wins, but it kind of tells us we’re on the right track.”
When RISEHI visited Purple Mai‘a, students laughed and worked in the classroom.
These keiki are a small group of advanced students who have been with Purple Mai‘a for over a year. “[They] need to be challenged further than the introductory courses,” Kelsey explains. “So we bring them together one Saturday a month to have a day-long workshop to go further in-depth into computer science topics.”
Eventually, these students will step out from behind the screen to develop project-management and entrepreneurial skills. Their projects will grow in scope and, of course, they’ll learn to make pitches.
“As the kids get older we have ideas for how to bring in other revenue streams from taking on paid work, so we can support the educational mission while creating job experience and supporting the organization and the kids,” Kelsey says.
Purple Mai‘a envisions its future as more than just a computer science course.
It’s a pathway to career opportunities that, for some of these kids, may have never been an option.
“My big thing is that these kids will be technically excellent, but grounded in an island worldview that the kinds of things they create serves communities, serves our values, serves our lands,” Donavan declares.
As she described how the mission has evolved, Kelsey asked: What does it mean to not just replicate how other people teach computer science, but to think about how we want to do it here and how that’s related to having pride in the place that we’re from, and our identities, and our ancestors?
Purple Mai‘a is answering that question with every kumu, every code, and every student.
This organization may be relatively new but as any venture capitalist knows, tomorrow’s world is in the hands of the young.
Q&A with Co-Founders Kelsey Amos and Donavan Kealoha
Video by Aria Studios
What problem are you trying to solve?
KELSEY AMOS: Technology is here, it’s an important part of our world now and it’s going to be important in the future. Unfortunately, it’s not yet mandatory for everybody to learn about coding or to learn about how to make the things that we are used to consuming on our phones and on our computers. We use apps and we play games but we don’t necessarily know how they’re made.
If only certain people are able to get that information and learn about how to make those things, those are the only people who are going to be shaping our future and making the products we all use. We think it’s really important to get a greater diversity of people into the tech industry so that they can use those skills and those abilities to solve the problems around them and to develop the products they want to see.
What are some examples of the projects your students have created and how they’re being used to benefit the community?
KA: Our students are fairly young, for the most part they’re able to make websites and games. It’s the weekend academy kids that we’re going to engage in trying to make projects that go somewhere. Another project we have to clear the way for the younger students is called the Purple Prize — it’s a competition for adults and older students. The second place winner in the first year we did it was actually a family team. They built an app called Waiwai (available on the Apple and Android stores) and it teaches young children how the watershed works. It’s a really cool game that introduces a lot of Hawaiian vocabulary and a lot of ecological knowledge about the ahupua’a system.
What have been your biggest hurdles?
DONAVAN KEALOHA: With any nonprofit organization getting started, cash or resources are at the top. But it’s more than just cash, right? Cash buys you things. I think it’s finding the right group of folks who we want to work with our kids. What makes them special is that alignment in values and vision for our kids future. There’s a lot of folks, a lot of schools, a lot of programs that want us to work with them but it’s finding the right teachers, the right kokua (interns) that get the mission of the org and work alongside us.
Has the mission changed?
KA: I think the mission has grown. Olin and Donavan came up with the idea out of a desire to give back in their own life stories — they’ve gone from having relatively little to really finding success through technology and business. Initially, it was just a desire to create that opportunity for kids and the way that it’s grown since then is that we’ve been able to ask ourselves more questions as an organization about what does it mean to do technology from a place of Hawaiian values?
DK: All of us bring our own dreams and hopes and aspirations to this program. I work in the tech industry, my job is to look for the next great innovative companies which [are] typically founded by young people. It’s my desire to see kids from Hawai‘i — Hawaiian kids, local kids, whatever — start the next great tech company. That’s why we’re doing it, what pushes me.
Text & Interview by Alison Bemis
Photos Courtesy of Bill Evangelista