In the lore of Browne Middle School 5th grader Toni-Chanelle Suncar’s family, there is a story about her great grandmother meeting the president of the Dominican Republic many years ago when she was a little girl.
As it’s told, Suncar’s great grandmother got face to face with the president and he told her he could give her anything she wanted – a house, money or schooling.
She chose simply to shake his hand.
Fast forward two generations, and another member of the family has come face to face with a president – this time U.S. President Barack Obama.
And this time around, Toni-Chanelle Suncar humbly shook the president’s hand, just like her great grandmother, and added to the presidential lore of the family.
It came last Monday, March 23, when Suncar went on a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C. to participate in the White House Science Fair as part of a national presentation by students from all over the country. During the fair, Suncar got to be front and center with the president as he gave a speech honoring the achievements of the students.
“I guess the president of the Dominican Republic could have given my great grandmother anything in the world, and she just chose to shake his hand,” said Suncar in an interview late last week. “Now, everyone in the family is making a big deal of the fact that my great grandmother met a president and now another member of the family, me, has met a president. My mom was happy the day we found out I was going to Washington, D.C. The whole family was talking about it.”
So was the entire Browne Middle School (BMS).
Suncar was chosen for a computer coding project she did through the BMS’s partnership with Citizen Schools and the Boston technology firm Digitas. Students from the BMS get to partake in short internships with several of the partner companies, including Digitas, and work on science and engineering projects. For Suncar, she and other team members combined with Digitas volunteers to code a computer game called “Flappy Unicorn.”
“Our main goal was to make a video game using the program ‘Scratch,’” Suncar said. “So, we chose a unicorn because that was the logo of Digitas. They taught us how to code and counseled us. We based it on the game ‘Flappy Bird’ and put the blocks together to tell our unicorn what to do based on an x-axis and a y-axis – like we learned in math…For us, the coding was kind of like the instructions for our figure – sort of like a Morse Code…I didn’t know when I was at Digitas that I was doing anything really big. I never thought it would lead to a trip to Washington. I thought I would move on to another internship and take with me what I learned.”
Suncar said they chose her because she stood out as the hardest worker on the project.
“They felt I had been the hardest worker on the project and were impressed with what I had done,” she said. “So, they chose me to go and represent our team.”
Coding is something that is becoming a primary building block of learning for students all over the world. In short, it’s the language of computers and tells them what to do and how to do it. Many technology companies, including Microsoft, believe that coding needs to be taught in every school to students just as a foreign language would be taught. Technology companies routinely report that there are jobs open at their companies, but no one with the skills to fill them.
With students like Suncar, that might change.
However, other pursuits might take her away from the computer.
Suncar, 10, said she probably will become a veterinarian when she’s older, but she’s also considering journalism.
“My inspiration to become a veterinarian is my aunt’s dog,” she said. “I always observe him a lot when I go over to her house – to see how much he sleeps and how he behaves. I really enjoy observing and noting his behaviors and how he acts around certain people.”
BMS Principal David Leibowitz said the opportunity to meet the president and present a project at the White House Science Fair is something that only comes because of the great partnerships the BMS has built with the community and Citizen Schools.
“This special opportunity is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Toni-Chanelle to display the work she’s done and present to an incredible audience what she’s learned,” he said. “It’s also a great model for other 5th graders that shows what anyone can do with hard work. It’s something for other kids to aspire to.”
Suncar said, in summary, it was great to meet the president, but she’s also ready for family history to repeat itself again.
“I hope I can meet him again; I really would like to go again next year,” she said.
Suncar is the daughter of Wanda Barrios, and she credited her older sisters Erica Maria Tapia and Stephanie Rivera – as well as her Citizen School teacher Lydia Cochrane – with supporting her in her efforts.