Pennsylvania boy’s award-winning app is the bee’s knees
NAZARETH, Pa. — Outside of Nazareth lives a merry young genius named Kedar Narayan, who wants to replace every manicured lawn in the country — even the world — with a pollinator garden irresistible to birds and bees.
Kedar will be 9 on his next birthday, in September, and by that time you may be able to download the mobile app he created to help people make this horticultural transformation as quick and efficient as possible, so the pollinators of the world — bees and hummingbirds and so on — have more places to go.
The app, which is in the running for an enormous cash prize, will be for everyone. But it is geared especially toward children of the current generation who, in Kedar’s judgment, aren’t as environmentally conscious as you might expect given the attention that topic gets in school.
“A lot of kids don’t even care about the environment,” he said , relaxing — almost — on a sofa in his Lower Nazareth Township home and recounting a story about some friends who carelessly kicked over flowers and didn’t seem to feel at all sorry.
“No one really tells them what the environment does,” he said. “They don’t know how everything is connected. When one part of the ecosystem goes down, everything goes down with it.”
Coder: This is how Kedar converses, so insightfully and eloquently that you begin to forget he is 8. But he has always been quite a bit older than his years. He began assembling 100-piece puzzles at 2 and was doing three-digit addition in his head by 5.
He is also a masterful computer coder. His nickname is Little Code Ninja. He was only 5 when he started to learn this craft. His video game console broke and his mother, Anita, who home-schools him, told him it wasn’t the end of the world, he could learn to code and make his own video games.
Anita is a computer scientist, so Kedar had a good teacher. To say he had a knack for it is like saying Mozart had a knack for music. Before long he designed a 3-D board game, Storibot, to teach other children how to code, and he made it rich with tactile elements so visually impaired children could play.
The invention landed him on a talk show hosted by comedian Steve Harvey. It also won four awards at this year’s National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
All in a day’s work.
“He’s very strong-willed,” Anita Narayan said. “You give him material and he learns on his own.”
Gardening: Kedar said the idea for his Pollinator Garden App occurred to him a few months ago. His parents had been taking him to a lot of fairs where he showed people how to code, but then his mother gave birth to his baby brother and couldn’t take him anymore.
“I was looking for something fun to do so I started gardening,” he said.
Because Kedar does nothing in half measures, he sought the counsel of Penn State master gardeners and county agricultural extension agents and set about learning the fundamentals, then the particulars, of horticulture.
“That’s when I realized how wasteful lawns were,” he said.
Pollinators: Wasteful indeed. Lawns are swaths of empty space where blue false indigo and wild columbine and white penstemon might otherwise grow and provide pollen to the creatures that carry it around and make other things grow.
Not just bees, either, though they are certainly the best known and busiest of the breed.
“There are many pollinators,” Kedar said. “Hummingbirds, which are things people really want. Butterflies, for example. The wind is a pollinator. That’s actually new to me.”
Without pollinators, he added, we may as well hang it up, because there wouldn’t be any food.
Beyond that, people tend to slather lawns with pesticides and weed killers. Kedar’s father, Kartik, is a biochemist, so, as with computer coding, Kedar had a good home resource to teach him the environmental effects of those.
Native plants: Now, you can’t just willy-nilly plant a bunch of flowers. One of the features of Kedar’s app is a list of plants native to a specified area. These are best to plant because they don’t need to adjust to the climate and require less tending.
Connie Schmotzer, a Penn State extension agent in York County who oversees the state’s pollinator garden certification program, said Kedar contacted her to find out all he could about gardens.
“He wanted to have what he was doing dovetail with what we do,” she said. “He was looking for good information to put in the app. He didn’t want this to just be fun and games, he wanted it to have some substance.”
“I think what he’s doing for such a young fellow is pretty neat,” Schmotzer added.
Paradigm Challenge: Kedar entered the app in the Paradigm Challenge sponsored by Project Paradigm, a private foundation that supports innovators who want to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. This year’s contest theme was reduction of waste.
Michelle Fishburne, the foundation’s outreach officer, said entries submitted from children 4 to 18 years old are scrutinized by a “blue ribbon panel of judges” and winnowed down to a finalists’ field in three age groups.
“The quality of entries we receive are really strong,” Fishburne said. “Students are excited to have an opportunity to solve real-world problems, so they put a lot of effort into it. They care about making a difference in the world. It’s not often that us adults ask kids to solve big problems, but when we do, they usually surprise us.”
Kedar won first place in his 4-8 age group. Now he’s up against winners from two other age groups for the $100,000 Paradigm Challenge Prize, to be awarded July 29 at a black-tie ceremony in Los Angeles.
It would be a nice foundation for his plan to become a fabulously rich philanthropist in the manner of Warren Buffett. He has been watching the investment wizard’s animated “Secret Billionaire’s Club” since he was 6.
But the money is almost beside the point.
“I’m also hoping to make new friends,” Kedar said, “and to make people more aware.”