In the summer before heading off to college, many teenagers are lounging poolside or maybe working a part-time job—both respectable options. But 17-year-old Robbie Khazan is focused on a much larger goal: helping kids to code. Khazan, an Arlington High School graduate bound for Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, was recently recognized at the 2022 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, awarding 15 exceptional teen leaders with $36,000 each in recognition of work they’re doing to build a better world.

Khazan leads Kiddo Byte, a free program he launched in 2020 that offers equitable access to computer science education. The program, now with about 60 volunteers, teaches hundreds of kids in marginalized communities and provides computers and other tech to those who need it. Through a partnership with MIT, Robbie’s program has expanded to support more kids. He’s now working on expanding to Ukraine.

I caught up with him to chat about the organization and how it’s guided by Jewish values.

So, this is huge! Did you always love computers?

I first started getting into computers as a child. My dad and I were in Florida, and he was showing me Scratch, which is a very visual programming language for kids. It’s drag-and-drop in terms of coding. What you’re coding is immediately shown on the screen. You have a direct result of what you’ve been coding and the hard work you’ve put in. I was immediately hooked. I remember spending the rest of that summer just coding, making random things, exploring on my own. I had friends who were also learning how to do Scratch. I would work with them and get inspiration from them. They were my “teachers,” showing me new ideas and inspiring me.

What led you to start Kiddo Byte?

As I got older, my youngest sister, Ellie, got into Scratch. I wanted her to have that initial spark, but also kind of guide her through it. So I started teaching her and a bunch of her friends every Sunday. We’d work on the kitchen counter and just make a game and get her excited about it. And then I realized, you know what? I want to reach more kids. So I pitched the idea to a bunch of her classmates’ parents.

Wow! You just randomly asked them?

I sent an email to a bunch of my sister’s friends’ parents: “Hey, we’re starting a class!” At this point, I was just teaching a class as a pilot. That class was super successful. And we saw a lot of the kids just really fall in love with coding and take it really far.

How did this become the Kiddo Byte that we all know today? You were even covered in The Boston Globe.

I realized that, as those classes were successful, Kiddo Byte was an opportunity to make an even bigger impact. I started reaching out to local homeless shelters, transitional housing shelters, in Boston. And actually, pretty soon, we partnered with the Brookview House, a transitional housing shelter in Dorchester. And we were teaching online for a while. All of these classes are online, by the way, because this was COVID times. In 2021, we came in-person for the first time and ended up teaching for almost a year-and-a-half. We were teaching weekly Scratch classes, and then Python classes. Then we partnered with MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and we had multiple workshops where Lincoln Laboratory employees taught workshops with the students there.

How did you balance all this with school?

It took up a lot of time. But I never really had to force myself to work, because I didn’t think of it as a work. This is a huge passion of mine. I loved every process. Now, we have a team of over 50 volunteers. It wasn’t really work in my eyes.

How does a teenager partner with an organization like MIT?

Everyone started with a cold email. Over the years, I refined the pitch and got good at sending emails.

Tell me about the kids you reach.

The idea of these transitional housing shelters popped up as a really great solution, because they have a day program where kids come in to spend their time while their parents go and work and to hopefully get back on their feet, like at Brookview. And that’s about the same time when a woman from Kenya reached out to me by email, and she wanted to do online classes, but the time zone didn’t work out. So, I said, “Hey, can you get a few kids together, and we’ll start up a whole new class, a whole new branch just for these kids?” And we started teaching every Sunday for a year, online. I actually just got back from Kenya, in-person, where we taught and set up a computer lab. It was a life-changing experience for me.

Is there a Jewish motivation behind what you’re doing?

The core of Kiddo Byte is tikkun olam. My definition is, we have a responsibility to make the world a better place, no matter how big the problem. It’s about not shying away from a problem and hiding behind someone else who will fix it. And, for me, that was providing equitable and accessible computer science education for kids who might not have access to it otherwise. Obviously, you start small. And, to be honest, I didn’t know the scale that Kiddo Byte would reach at the beginning. If I did, it would probably be pretty intimidating.

What are you going to do with the award proceeds?

As we expand, we can reach more children worldwide. I’ll continue to think about how to achieve our goal and mission. And it will also go toward my education at MIT.

We’ve also been teaching Ukrainian refugees in and around Ukraine. These are children in orphanages who have been forced out of Ukraine. We’re teaching Scratch, but because of limited access to computers and Wi-Fi, we cannot reach nearly as many children as possible. We’re asking people to donate. The money goes directly to computers for those orphanages so more children can take our class. Kiddo Byte Ukraine is led by another Arlington teen, Gosha Lubashev, a rising senior at Arlington High School, and his sister, Mira, a sophomore.

Why is coding so important for kids?

Coding really unlocks opportunities financially for the future. Also, you have amazing scholarships available; colleges and schools are looking for coders. And then, out of college, computer science is one of the most in-demand markets. Companies are looking for coders all the time, and there’s not enough supply. If you’re a good computer scientist, you can get a really high-paying salary right out of the gate.

Also, the essence of Kiddo Byte is that coding is just fun. It’s creative. It offers critical-thinking skills. And as a computer scientist, you are, especially in Scratch, even at that young age, tasked with an idea. Maybe it’s your own, maybe it’s not. But you want to figure out: How do I take this idea and put it onto a computer, given the syntax that’s allowed in this computer language? Their homework is to come up with an idea. And then, hopefully, it’s not homework—hopefully, by the end of it, they’re just filled with ideas and want to go and make games and animations and express themselves creatively. I think that’s such a huge power behind coding. Our goal is really to just foster that creativity.