Blessed with a restless mind constantly looking for problems that need solving, Gitanjali Rao has become a renowned scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur—all before graduating high school. In 2017, moved by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the STEM School Highlands Ranch student invented Tethys, a portable device that uses nanotube technology to detect lead in drinking water. Rao, along with three classmates, responded to recent increases in teen suicides by developing an artificial intelligence app called Kindly that’s intended to detect and prevent cyberbullying. Now the 15-year-old is developing a prototype to diagnose early-stage opioid addiction. All those achievements haven’t gone unnoticed: Named Time’s first Kid of the Year in December 2020, she released her second book, A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM, on March 16. In it, Rao details the five-step process she uses to spot and then fix an issue, hopefully readying today’s Baby Einsteins for their generation’s big problem (or pandemic). Before the book hit the shelves, 5280 caught up with the award-winning sophomore to talk practical ways parents and youngsters can flex a little gray together.
Start by leaning into your young ones’ interests. If they have an affinity for counting and sorting, encourage activities that put those skills in context by, for example, turning an ordinary hike into an expedition for rocks, leaves, or even bugs. At home, think of everyday chores they can do like sorting silverware or matching socks—activities that encourage identifying attributes such as size, color, textures, or shapes.
Exploring how the heart functions through aerobic exercise is one way to introduce your kindergartner to the scientific method. Begin with a hypothesis: The body needs more oxygen when exercising. Then test it by taking a resting heart rate. (Hint: Place your kids’ first two fingers on their necks or wrists and count the beats for 15 seconds; multiply by four to calculate beats per minute.) Exert for 20 minutes, repeat the count, and watch them marvel at understanding that when they move faster, their hearts pump more oxygen-rich blood.
Let Them Eat Cake
One of Rao’s favorite pastimes—baking—is an amalgamation of complex cognitive skills and processes. “The whole goal of baking is to create a chemical reaction that [then] tastes awesome,” Rao says. In other words, making cupcakes can be a stealthy way to strengthen math skills and reading comprehension, not to mention hand-eye coordination from measuring and mixing ingredients. Challenge your tween by slicing a standard recipe in half. Divide and conquer.
Buy Rao’s Book
Based on the processes Rao developed to take a solution from idea to reality, her book teaches kids how to observe, brainstorm, research, build, and communicate through fun and immersive techniques. The guide comes kid-tested and approved by tough critics: STEM School Highlands Ranch kindergartners, for whom Rao leads similar experiments that spark inquiry. “If I can do it,” the teenager says, “anyone can.”