Although she’s created an award-winning mobile app, Zoe Kurdakul is nervous about speaking this summer at the Zoho Creator’s 4th annual user conference in Pleasanton, California.
Her nervousness is evenly split among two reasons—the first reason is the prospect of addressing a room full of well-educated people who are aspiring Silicon Valley developers. The other reason is that Zoe, at age 11, is still a shy elementary school student.
The Robinson Elementary School fifth-grader is obviously not a “techie,” her mother, Sheri, said. But she is a natural problem solver, raised by parents with entrepreneurial spirits.
One such problem Zoe had was about two years ago, when she transferred from a private school to the elementary school. She made friends quickly, but she also learned quickly how many classmates were being picked on routinely. One such friend was particularly having a hard time with bullying.
“She told me she wished there was something she could do,” Sheri said. “If it gets reported to the school guidance counselor, then she said everyone knows and they pick on you more. She said she wish there was a way to report it without everyone knowing.”
Zoe told her mom she wished there was a mobile app for reporting bullying. Sheri’s response was flippant: “Why don’t you build one?”
So Zoe did.
Using her knowledge of coding from a class and a development platform used by Sheri’s old company, Zoe began to build an app that would allow classmates to confidentially report any instances of bullying. For such a novel and well-constructed idea, the project was still that of an 11-year-old’s. It was named Zoe End Barriers in Reporting Adversity—or Z.E.B.R.A, Zoe’s favorite animal.
The mother and daughter still needed to figure out how detailed reporting on the app should be. They sat down in meetings with local middle school guidance counselors to better gauge how it would be best served.
“The reason she chose to go to the middle school is because elementary school goes up to fifth grade,” Sheri said. “Middle school tends to be the age when kids get picked on more, they all have devices, and the whole environment around this app became a lot more useful. We did reach out to the head of elementary division, who took it to the school board attorneys. But there were too many privacy laws for them to pursue it.”
The end result was an entry page where users are required to report their school name, gender, date and location of the incident, whether there were witnesses, how many people were involved, whether anybody has been informed of the incident and what entailed in the incident. The user can choose to include their age, the names of any witnesses and how many times such an incident has occurred before.
The Kurdakuls then introduced the app to the school through a class project. Zoe presented a feasibility study of the app for her science fair assignment last year, then fully tested the app for her project this year. She won first place at the 2016 Mercer County Science and Engineering Fair, as well as the Earl S. Rommel Communications Award. More importantly, her study showed trends of bullying in hers and surrounding schools.
Most of the app users during testing were in elementary school, due to Sheri passing it along to parents she knew. A few middle school students submitted reports, and even one high school student. The average user age was 10, Sheri said, with a higher number of girls being involved in incidents than boys.
According to Zoe’s data, the average female user reported four incidents, while the average boy reported two. Of all incidents, 62 percent were verbal, 19 percent were physical, 13 percent were by written word and just six percent were via social media—due to most 10-year-olds not being online, Sheri speculated.
Of reported incidents, 40 percent occurred at random. Another 30 percent occurred on a daily basis, and 10 percent occurred weekly. Girls tended to have incidents occur among a larger group of people, with more verbal accosting. Boys’ incidents were generally one-on-one. Every incident between classmates seemed to be happening more than once, and Sheri believes the app could play a role in preventing these issues.
“One of the guidance counselors said if the app were actually launched into a real-world scenario, they could start to see patterns of whether a kid was getting picked on, or if a kid was doing the picking,” Sheri said. “So they could preemptively develop programs to prevent it in the future.”
The app was built with the Deluge script programming language, created by the Zoho Corporation. When the technology company heard about Zoe’s work, they asked her to speak at their annual conference this June—the biggest surprise to come from any of this, Zoe said. The Kurdakuls currently have a GoFundMe page dedicated to giving Zoe a weeklong stay in California for her appearance. The conference is August 29-31.
Though Zoe is apprehensive about public speaking, she’s coming into a role of influence because of her app. Sheri plans to let her video-blog her experiences in California, and gave her permission to run a YouTube channel off her own page. For as much as the app has let others open up, it’s done the same for Zoe.
“Before this, she was excruciatingly shy,” Sheri said. “If anything, it’s helped. We’ve also have seen her fight against some instances of peer pressure.”
Zoe’s future probably isn’t in Silicon Valley. She loves to draw—having designed her app logo herself—and has dreams of being an artist. She said the app isn’t necessarily a carry-on project. It was meant for a science fair and for some local families to use. But it’s also proof that kids don’t need much more than a tongue-in-cheek response of, “Go make it” to actually go out and make something.
“Even if the app hasn’t been as out there, it’s really done a lot for her,” Sheri said. “And for that we’re grateful. We hope other kids are inspired to go out there, take risks, and build stuff.”