Kaya Thomas, a newly minted graduate from Dartmouth College, has been a bookworm for as long as she can remember.
“I love reading,” she told me over the phone, “and I’ve always been fascinated with technology.”
But as she plowed through books during her childhood and adolescence, she noticed that the most fiction offered in libraries and bookstores was predominantly about white characters.
“I started to feel like none of these characters were ever described to be like me,” she said. “The books that they did have with black girl characters fell into one particular stereotype of urban fiction. Personally, I didn’t relate to it. I could read all these thousands of books where the characters are white, and they have so many different experiences, but when I look for black characters, it’s one kind of experience.”
At the same time that she was grappling with this scarcity of black experiences, Thomas was sharpening her science and tech skills. She redesigned MySpace pages, without even realizing that she was learning to code, and ran STEM camps for young girls while she was in high school.
During her freshman year at Dartmouth, she came across a TED Talk given by electrical engineer Kimberly Bryant, who founded the nonprofit Black Girls Code, which inspired her to learn Python at Codeacademy.
“I was hooked,” she said. “I loved it. From there, I decided I wanted to study computer science.”
Thomas soon recognized an opportunity to merge her love for software development with her longstanding cravings for a more diverse reading list. In 2014, she launched the app WeReadToo, a compendium of books written by authors of color, about characters of color (the Android version is newly available).
WeReadToo has been downloaded over 20,000 times, and the bibliography—which is user-generated—includes nearly 900 books. It has been gratifying for Thomas to see librarians and teachers recommending the app, and to hear from authors looking for a platform “where they can shine,” she said.
“These types of stories exist, and authors are working really hard to create these stories and get them out there,” she said. “I wanted to have an impact that way, so that students and young people of color can see that these stories are really there.”
“Even if students are in an all-white classroom,” she continued, “it’s still going to have an impact because those students will get to read about people different from themselves, understand different people, and be able to accept that.”
WeReadToo is Thomas’ main focus at the moment, but it’s far from the only tech-savvy education tool on her resume. For her senior thesis project, she worked with Dartmouth education professor David Kraemer to design three colorful iPad games for elementary school students struggling with fractions.
“The goal with this was to say: ‘What is the hardest part of math for elementary school students, where they don’t understand it, and after that they hate math for the rest of their lives’?” she explained. “We dived into the research and saw that fractions was that point. So we thought: ‘how can we make it fun, and a bit more understandable’?”
The three games illustrate the core concepts of fractions with kid-friendly cartoons of sharks, monkeys, and candy. Thomas hopes these kinds of tools will reach more classrooms and homes, to engage the next generation, who are more immersed in tech than ever before.
“Education and learning should be fun, and I don’t think kids should go to school dreading it every day,” she told me. “Kids are fascinated by technology—they love it. If you can find a way to use the technology they love to teach them something, that could be amazing for them.”
“What I think is important, and that sometimes we miss, is people think that we want technology to replace teachers, or person-to-person learning,” she added. “That’s not the point at all. You have to use the games as a supplement.”
All of Thomas’s work reflects her intertwined passions for STEM, education, and literature, and her dedication to building a more inclusive and vibrant community to share them.
“People don’t think about the soft skills, but I think they are very important to the software engineering job,” she said. “You should be able to think about, interact with, and understand different types of people if you’re going to build something for different types of users.”
Humans of the Year is a series about the people building a better future for everyone. Follow along here.