Jelani Nelson

ACM Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science and Informatics

USA - 2022


For founding and growing AddisCoder, a nonprofit organization teaching programming to underserved students from all over Ethiopia, leading them to higher education and successful careers

AddisCoder started in 2011 when Jelani Nelson was a graduate student at MIT. While visiting relatives in the capital city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Nelson decided to offer a free 4-week course on algorithms and coding for high school students. He got a local university's approval to use their lecture halls and computer labs and advertised the course by word of mouth. In 2016, as a faculty member at Harvard, Nelson decided to repeat AddisCoder at larger scale, this time in collaboration with the Ethiopian non-profit the Meles Zenawi Foundation, and Ethiopia's Ministry of Education. This enabled the course to become a residential program with all travel and lodging covered, so that students beyond Addis Ababa could participate.

Upon joining the program, many of the participating students have little to no background in programming or algorithms. But, in short weeks, the students gain significant knowledge about the field of computer science. The program rigorously covers college-level material in algorithms such as binary search and sorting, dynamic programming, and graph exploration. After completion of this program, many alumni have gone off to pursue studies and careers in computer science. Alumni have matriculated into undergraduate programs at top universities and tech companies.

AddisCoder has been a model of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The program has over 40% female participants and includes students from each of the eleven regions in Ethiopia, including numerous students from ethnic minorities and students living in poverty. In 2022, AddisCoder Inc. launched JamCoders, a similar program for high school students in Jamaica. There are over 500 alumni of the program with many of the students returning to the program to participate as Teaching Assistants.

Nelson is a dedicated supporter for the students and alumni of the program. In one of the courses, Nelson (a world-champion speed typist) ?live-captioned? a lecture so that a deaf student could follow along. He continues to have an impact as a teacher and mentor to many young students by offering opportunities that introduce them to the field of computing.