By Robin Young
For 92 years, TIME magazine has named a Person of the Year — an honor that wields influence, makes waves and serves as a catalyst for global change.
This year, TIME named 15-year-old scientist and inventor Gitanjali Rao the first-ever Kid of the Year. Rao was selected from a field of more than 5,000 Americans ages 8 to 16. A resident of Lone Tree, Colo., Rao is an involved 4-H participant in Douglas County. Colorado 4-H is organized and funded, in part, by Colorado State University Extension.
Rao was selected as TIME’s first Kid of the Year for her astonishing work using technology to tackle issues, ranging from contaminated drinking water to opioid addition to cyberbullying. She researches scientific tools such as artificial intelligence and carbon nanotube sensor technology and applies them to problems she sees in everyday life.
Rao also is on a mission to create a global community of young innovators to solve problems around the world. She has created a series of workshops designed to show other kids how to tap into their curiosity, aspiring to create a generation of innovators.
In addition to her work with technology, her involvement with Douglas County 4-H includes serving as a member of the Bighorn Sheep Club for several years.
A natural leader, Rao won first place in the “Refining Leadership Skills” Leadership Project category at the 2020 Douglas County Fair. Her win qualified her for the Colorado State Fair, where she earned grand champion in the Leadership Project. She also earned the grand champion title in 2018 and 2019, with this year marking her third straight win.
“Gitanjali’s project this year was meticulous and really stood out. You can tell she does everything with 150 percent effort, no details left behind. It says a lot about her work ethic and determination to excel,” said Nicole Speeding, CSU Extension agent in 4-H Youth Development — Leadership.
An interview with Rao and Douglas County 4-H
Rao discussed her experience in 4-H and her recognition in TIME magazine with Douglas County 4-H. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Q (Douglas County 4-H): What does 4-H mean to you? How did you get involved?
A (Rao): I was in 4-H from fourth grade. I started in Nashville and participated in public speaking as my main project for the first few years. When I moved to Colorado, I continued to be involved in 4-H, taking up different leadership positions and projects.
4-H allowed me to meet diverse students like me who have different skill sets. It taught me the importance of community service, leadership, commitment and responsibility while competing to improve my skill sets.
Q: How did you come to be so passionate about science and innovation? How did 4-H impact your interest in technology/science?
A: I was introduced to several topics in different STEM clubs and 4-H had a STEM club in Nashville which introduced me to science concepts. This sparked my interest in using science as a catalyst for social change. I continued that while combining leadership skills in Colorado. The leadership project I took here in Douglas County helped me develop my science research while at the same time helped me share my knowledge with students across the globe. Setting goals in the 4-H club and working towards them by the end of the year helped me execute my plans.
Q: What did you learn in 4-H?
A: 4-H helped me to be a responsible citizen. While I enjoy all the activities I do in the community, 4-H taught me the bigger idea that if I introduced the curriculum of kindness, innovation and community service in preschool, elementary and even middle school students, I believe it will be much more impactful as everybody will feel attached to a cause and grow up to be good, responsible citizens.
Q: What would you say to other kids who are interested in STEM? Do you have any advice?
A: Start small. You do not have to know every technology in depth out there. Seek out mentors and experts and learn what you can. Ask for help because there are universities and organizations who are ready to help us. We just need to take the first step and the initiative to be consistent and persistent.
Q: What is your big dream for your life? What do you want to accomplish?
A: I dream of youth innovators in our future, globally, and that our education system changes from traditional models to problem-solving models. We will have the next generation ready for any of the problems that will face us. I conduct innovation workshops globally as a small step towards the dream.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to youth in your generation, what would you say?
A: Follow your passion and use your skills to help at least one person. Seek an adult mentor to guide you, if you do not know where to start. We live in an information age, so knowledge is freely available. Take risks and never be afraid to fail.
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