How to Raise an “Undefinable” STEM Superstar Like 13-Year-Old Programmer Keila Banks

Keila Banks at Axosoft Girls in Tech Catalyst 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Meet Keila Banks

Keila has been in high demand ever since; she’s been featured by MNSBC, MTV News, and LA This Week News. A Business Insider article about Keila went viral in the tech and education communities this summer (“This 13-year-old programmer wowed 4,000 people with an inspiring keynote speech”). She’s even garnered the attention of Chelsea Clinton, who tweeted about her accomplishments.

Keila got started with tech at a very early age, thanks in large part to her parents. She started her first blog at six years old — so young that her mom, a special education teacher, helped with the typing. When she wanted to create a website about pets at age nine, she taught herself to code through W3Schools and a book her father gave her.

Like a lot of kids, Keila is into gaming. In her case, it’s been a great opportunity to expand her skills. She’s created fan videos with the OpenShot and Sony Vegas videos editors, made game-embedded videos with the Machinima programming platform for gamers, and has a popular blog on Woozworld, a virtual world for teens and her favorite website.

This amazing young woman got her start as a keynote speaker in 2013 at the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE), a conference her dad helps organize. Keila also started learning Ruby on Rails at SCALE, when she was about 12 years old.

She “really liked Ruby” because it’s “so easy to work with,” and “it’s really good to integrate with other things, like Rails,” she explains in her keynote.

Keila also discovered Python at SCALE, when an exhibitor who heard her speak gave her the bookPython for Kids. PyLadies, a mentorship group that helps women become active participants and leaders in the Python community, made it possible for her to speak at a conference in Canada, where she had the opportunity to visit Woozworld headquarters. She even scored a consulting gig advising Woozworld on website updates. Keila has a programming idea for Python and is working on a separate app, but both remain top-secret.

Her skills don’t stop at coding; Keila also started hacking hardware when her iPod broke in fifth grade. After fixing the iPod with her father, she moved on to building computers from scratch. She currently helps her dad with consulting projects, including social media management for the mayor of Los Angeles.

In addition to her mad tech skills, Keila is also a former cheerleader and runner — things that “usually don’t go together,” she says in her keynote. She asks her audience, “How would you define someone like me? Or someone like you, too?” she asked during her speech. “You don’t. And that’s why I like to call myself ‘undefinable.’”

STEM is a Banks Family Affair!

Daughter and dad. Girls in Tech Catalyst 2015. (Photo Credit: Tiffany Brownley-Meijer)

We wanted to know how Phillip Banks (@banksps) and his wife (Carole Leila Cramer-Banks) managed to raise a STEM superstar and what we, as teachers and parents, can learn from them. How did Keila become such an awesome kid who loves STEM and travels around the world to evangelize it?

Turns out, it’s a family affair. Phillip Banks hails from a line of mathematicians and technologists. His father was an engineer, Phillip himself owns a successful software company, and his wife is a special education teacher. The trend is continuing in the next generation. One of Philip’s sons,David Banks, just graduated high school with honors and will be majoring in neuroscience at Azusa Pacific University. His younger son, Hunter Banks, is a game developer who recently wrote an article for FOSSForce.com on open source gaming (“Making the Switch to Open Source Gaming”). Sons Phillip Jr. and Hunter traveled to Mexico in July to build school computer labs with Kids on Computers. Young Phillip even penned a brief blog post about the experience (“An Amazing Week In Oaxaca”). Clearly, the family that codes together, stays together!

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Philip and ask him about his parenting strategy.

Phillip Banks and three of his kids, Phillip Banks Jr., Keila Banks and Hunter D Banks, at the SCALA tech conference.

Phillip Sr. himself was raised in a STEM-inclined household, though they never thought about it that way. He bought his first computer at 10 years old. Noting his father’s way of encouraging his interests in technology at an early age, Banks explains, “We weren’t really a family where it was pushed on you…It was more like my Dad said, ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll buy a book for it.’ So that’s how I am with my kids. Whatever you want to do…I just tell them it’s just a tool. It’s like a hammer. You can decide to go into construction, or you can [use it] to fix your own house.”

Mother and daughter. Keila and her mom, Carole Leila Cramer-Banks (a special education teacher)

Similarly, Keila uses her coding skills as a tool for doing the things she loves, like enhancing her gaming. Showing kids how these skills can empower them to achieve their own goals (rather than superimposed ones) may just capture their attention. And since computer skills are now an integral part of all aspects life, they’ll ultimately help young people in nearly any career.

But as we discussed in a recent post (“Can Schools Conquer Their Computer Science Demons? NY Tech Meetup Members Discuss”), schools are challenged to implement computer science curricula effectively. As a child, Philip was far more advanced than most other kids in his class and computer clubs, and felt school was out-of-step with technology — so he raised his kids not to rely on formal education alone, but to learn outside of school too. In a field where “the second it’s written down, it’s already outdated,” formal learning institutions are still struggling to keep pace. Philip underscores the role of parents, tech communities, and other external resources.

Dr. Damon Williams (senior vice president of Program, Training & Youth Development Services atBoys and Girls Club of America) wrote a great post on outlining how parents can get kids engaged in STEM through after school programs (“Tackling the Digital Divide & Closing the Opportunity Gap in STEM Education“). Some parents and teachers are answering the call. Alina Adams (@NYGiftedEd), an author who runs several STEM programs in New York, supports parents as “change agents” who can build “communities of practice.” In a recent tweet exchange with us, she announced a coding club in which her 12 year old son teaches his eight year old sister and her friends.

Phillip Banks is also practicing what he preaches. “I just started a program at the beginning of the year… at a high school, where after school, I teach them social media and Internet-related stuff and a little programming,” he told us. “It’s stuff that they wouldn’t get, especially in a city. They’re not gonna get it because, first of all, who’s gonna come to the inner city LA? You know? Who’s gonna spend the time when they could be making more money, doing something else?”

Phillip Banks “Running over to answer the next question” — at R.F.K. Now Academy where he is a volunteer teacher.

Philip’s volunteer experience and advocacy for Keila has taught him a lot from the female perspective.

“A lady wrote a blog post about her daughter in tech and how girls in tech, it’s harder for them…at the tech conventions I’m at, the women tell me all the time that guys just cannot relate to them. They almost don’t want to ask them a question because they’re a girl.”

Banks now accompanies his daughter to countless women’s tech conferences. “There’s tons of women in that group, and they reach out to me all the time, just thanking me and Keila.”

Asked how he feels about attending all-female conferences, he replies:

“It was awkward at first…Then I found that all these women find it just so great that a father would support his daughter like this. A lot of the women [say] their parents…their father especially, didn’t really push them in this area. They kind of did it on their own.”

But attending women’s conferences has given Keila the impression that there are a lot of women in tech. Her father informs her that’s really not the case, to stress the importance of her public speeches and the “platform” she has. And Keila’s speeches are hitting home with women (andmen) around the globe.

“We have women coders in Python from Brazil calling…We have a lot of countries in Africa sending us stuff,” Philip says. “There’s a lot of men [out there] too” who ask Banks for advice on how to help their daughters be like Keila — even men from countries that don’t necessarily emphasize girls’ education. For example, a man from Zimbabwe contacted Philip to ask how he could be like Keila. “How do I get started,” he inquired. “I’m 27. It’s not too late for me. How do I do it like your daughter?”

Making Learning Relatable

“Yes. Well, all of them are going to resist a little bit, at some point or another,” Banks says. “To me, it’s like my great-grandma told us. Everybody in this house, everybody in this family, needs to learn how to do two things — how to type and how to use an instrument and play any instrument. If everything goes wrong in the entire world, you can make money typing and playing an instrument. That was her theory on life.

So in my house, it was like everybody has to know how to use the computer. I don’t care what you do in life. Somehow, some way, you can relate this to it. Somehow, you’ll be able to use this… I’m sure there were times when they wanted to do something else, but…I’ve explained to them why they’re going to [do it, and] we’re going to have fun doing it.”

How does he make it fun? “I’m going to laugh about a lot of stupid stuff during it,” he explains. “Even with the students at the…high school, we had to start off the day talking about every silly thing, every silly rapper, every silly Vine they watched on the Internet and everything… It’s making everything relatable. That’s what it is.”

Tom McFadden (science teacher and host of “Science With Tom) would agree wholeheartedly with the importance of making learning fun for students. In a recent post on Education Insider, he explained how using rap music helps his students to not just learn science, but to really embrace and enjoy it (““Science with Tom” Goes Full STEAM Ahead on NGSS with Rap Videos”).

On Being Undefinable

“Most of the attendees are not definable,” he explains. “I’m big on not being categorized. I don’t even like people listening to my music list because we listen to every genre of music…You can’t be prejudice[d] against somebody that you can’t define.”

Banks thinks everyone should perceive themselves as undefinable, and describes his take on this in more detail in a blog post on his website (“How to be an “Undefinable You” like Keila Banks”). This even holds true when it comes to being intelligent. “[I]t’s not how smart you are,” he tells his children. “It’s how hard you work.” He often cites the book Mindset by Carol Dwek, which discusses how brains and talent are just starting points, and can be developed through practice and effort. The book’s themes resonate within the educational community, which is beginning to recognize that labeling kids as smart can make them dwell in their comfort zones. A recent article in The Atlantic describes how these kids can become risk-averse, and how those without the label can settle for less (“100 Percent Is Overrated”). The practice of praising kids without labeling them as smart is gaining traction.

Banks and family agree wholeheartedly. In fact, they favor doing away with external labels altogether. Keila puts it best in her keynote:

“We’re all put into a skin we have no control of. So really, your job and your mission is to show everybody what’s inside of you.”

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