BELLEVUE — Bellevue High School sophomore Jonathan Feng rushed to a table in the Downtown Boys and Girls Clubs activity room, where a group of elementary school children were hunched over a wooden dish. Pyrex glass filled with water. One of the children held a flat green Lego tile in his hand.
With the enthusiasm of the game show host, Feng asked the students, “Float or sink?” Final answer. Lock him up!”
“Float,” they – Team Wolves – shouted with competitive confidence before Feng moved on to the next table where he asked another group of students to confirm their guess.
Back at the front of the room, Feng ordered his delighted audience, “Okay. At three, let’s test it: One, two, three!
The science DIY lab erupted with “yeahs”, punches and high-fives as Legos floated in the water.
Who knew science could be so… rowdy?
Well, Samhita Korukonda and Pooja Rayanki knew that. They are the co-founders of STEM Academy, a student-run nonprofit organization dedicated to providing free, online, and in-person classes and activities that teach the principles of science, technology, science, and science. Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM.
Korukonda, a junior at Bellevue High, and Rayanki, a student at Homestead High School in California, were childhood friends in Chicago and remained close despite moving to different states. They started school club chapters of their program in Bellevue and Cupertino High School in California to do local outreach. STEM Academy, like many student innovations, was born during the pandemic, when both students had more flexible schedules and spent time learning and working from home.
This week’s after-school workshop was one of STEM Academy’s first in-person sessions since the organization was founded.
As young South Asian women, Korukonda and Rayanki say they are acutely aware of gender gaps and diversity in STEM fields and want students to have positive role models and experiences with STEM learning so that they be encouraged to pursue studies and careers in these fields.
“We have younger sisters and we didn’t want them to know about the challenges we faced,” Korukonda said.
Over the past year, STEM Academy’s mission and reach has grown to reach more than 1,100 students in more than 35 elementary schools across the United States through online courses. Korukonda and Rayanki hope to have more in-person programs where there is local interest. STEM Academy’s team of volunteer teachers includes more than a dozen high school students, mostly girls, pursuing studies in STEM.
Registration for a five-week rotation of free classes this spring begins the week of April 11. Classes are designed for students in grades 1 through 10. Recent courses have included topics like cell biology, pre-algebra, and introductions to coding with JAVA and Python. Astronomy will be added to the April program.
“I personally joined the club because I think it’s important to give back to your community,” said Tirsitemariyam Gessesse, a junior from Bellevue who helped teach the after-school activity with Korukonda, Feng and his classmate from Joy Qiu class.
As the students get older, “we see a lot of things that we wish we had when we were in high school, and we see that there are a lot of different things that we could teach young kids,” said Gesses.
Bellevue Junior Risha Ashwin said that for young children who want to learn a subject that may not be taught in school, STEM Academy is a good place to start.
“I feel like our courses promote that opportunity and help more people get involved in this STEM-related field,” she said.
STEM Academy youth are currently partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs of Washington State to offer on-site sessions. They aspire to expand their model internationally to encourage other like-minded high school students to teach STEM courses and activities in their communities.
Jillian Lowe, Community Partnerships and Grants Coordinator for Boys & Girls Clubs of Bellevue, said she was impressed with the STEM Academy student organization and happy to welcome them and their activities. , in the clubs of the region.
“After two years of learning on screens, anything engaging and in-person is great for kids,” Lowe said. “If it’s informative and fun like these guys intended, even better.”
Korukonda said student teachers have already led simple physics activities like the “sink or float” activity online. They also do a “lava lamp” making experiment, discussing the density of vegetable oil compared to mixed water and observed in reused clear plastic water bottles. A dash of food coloring and a sprinkle of glitter are added for fun. Students send families a list of materials ahead of time and try to incorporate common household items so that there is little or no cost to attend.
Bellevue junior Morgan Weber, who teaches online biology classes for the STEM Academy, says she tries to schedule classes that are engaging on screen. It incorporates interactive online quizzes, group discussions and topics based on each student’s interests. She once asked a fourth-grade girl to post about organ growth while she was learning about the cardiovascular system. So she had a discussion with her students about how scientists always experiment and organize trials to make new discoveries.
“I’m so proud of them,” Weber said of her students thinking beyond their lessons.
She and other high school students said they noticed that as they got older, fewer young women took advanced STEM classes and electives.
Bellevue junior Cindy Ni said she was one of the few women in her Advanced Placement Physics C class. But, she notices there is more gender balance in physics classes and coding from the STEM Academy that she teaches. She thinks high school classes are more important because they are graded. This may discourage participation, but it does not mean that students are not interested in advanced STEM subjects.
“I think by encouraging them at a young age, we encourage them not to stop and to continue taking these courses. [as they get older]”, Weber said.
Bellevue junior Sonali Dash agreed. “I have a younger sister, she’s in fifth grade, and I think seeing me get interested in STEM subjects, she started getting interested in it too,” she said. Now she and her sister watch science cartoons together on YouTube and talk about coding.
By inspiring younger siblings and other students to take an interest in STEM subjects, STEM Academy members hope that their protégés will help sustain the program for future generations.
Bellevue High School’s Dean of Students Arianna Giaroli, who serves as an advisor to the STEM Academy Club chapter, said the fact that the organization is student-designed, student-led, and demonstrates “levels of compassion and in-depth knowledge of the content” is “remarkable”. She also welcomes the fact that the awareness extends beyond their local communities.
Giaroli said the school’s goal is for its students to develop their social and emotional learning skills, cultural competence and “attitudes of change.”
“I really see these kids in the STEM club embodying that,” she said.