Over the summer, Malachi Cooks zipped over to the Earl A. Morgan Branch of the Jersey City Free Public Library in Greenville for one of his favorite activities.

“Learning more about block coding with Scratch” is what captivates the primary-grader from Martin Luther King School Jr. (No. 11).

Malachi isn’t alone in that preference. He’s one of about 25 other city youths enrolled in the Games and Robotics Academy for Minorities, co-founded by Yuga Patel and Saleema Diallo.

Yuga, who immigrated with her family from India at age 8 to the United States, and Saleema, whose family moved here from California when she was 11, are currently seniors at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School in Jersey City.

Saleema said the pair teamed up with a local nonprofit called DCM (Deliverance Children's Ministry) and the Triangle Park Community Center (part of a local Episcopal ministry based at 247 Old Bergen Road) to create GRAM after seeing many Jersey City elementary school kids falling short in math competency skills.

“Take a look at my old middle school (Whitney Young School 15) — it’s severely underfunded and, according to Niche (formerly known as College Prowler, a Pittsburgh-based website that ranks and reviews U.S. schools), only 1% of the students there are proficient in math,” she said.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” she said, “but sadly, not all that surprising. Many of these kids just don’t have the resources they need to do well in school.”

Yuga and Saleema are serving as co-coordinators of the school-wide tutoring program at McNair. Saleema brings a unique experience as an intern at Columbia University Graduate School of Education’s Games Research Lab to her tutees, and after graduation, she hopes to pursue a career as an educational game designer with a computer science degree.

Yuga’s goal is to “work in the engineering field, specifically, in the mechanical or aerospace engineering industry.”

At the same time, she says, “I want to find ways to give back to the community that I grew up in by making STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) education more accessible to everyone. My ultimate goal is to work on female empowerment in STEM in developing countries around the world.”

In the meantime, the young women continue to monitor fellow student volunteers as they impart skills in algebra, geometry, chemistry, biology, French and more at McNair.

And, with GRAM on Saturdays, Saleema and Yuga are proceeding with the free teaching of robotics, game development and coding.

“We’re also helping (middle school students) prepare for the PSAT 8/9 (mastery of eighth and ninth-grade skills), which is what allows them to get into the top high schools in Jersey City,” Yuga explained.

To that end, Saleema said, “we are targeting low-income underrepresented minorities in STEM and we’ve worked with around 25 kids so far. We’re doing everything we can to support our kids – from providing essential supplies, like chromebooks, to throwing in some fun extras like candy, certificates and a bowling field trip (now being planned).”

Still, Yuga said, “we could use some help” because “we’re running short on funds to buy more robotics kits and fund more of these field trips.”

Anyone willing to consider reaching out with “advice on how to improve our program, a partnership, financial support or even just spreading the word on social media to find more volunteers and students who want to join in” is invited to visit Instagram: @gram.jerseycity

Apparently, their dedication has already inspired a following, as noted by Malachi, who observed that his school (Martin Luther King Jr.) has “introduced coding and robotics to third-graders as an after-school program for the first time this year, which made me interested in learning more.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story failed to mention the involvement of DCM (Deliverance Children's Ministry)

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...