First Steps towards STEM for everyone: Ashna Patel
To open up the opportunities in science, tech, engineering, and math, students are supporting each other.
By Manat Kaur
Jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations have grown by 79% over the last three decades in the U.S. STEM education is becoming more important than ever — and high school senior Ashna Patel wants to make sure everyone has the same access to it.
Ashna started STEM & Buds to celebrate curiosity and provide students an opportunity to learn science through research and peer mentoring. She connected with Ashoka Young Changemaker Manat Kaur to share more about STEM & Buds and why friendship remains central to her work. .
MK: Tell us about your project.
AP: STEM & Buds is an organization empowering students to bridge STEM and storytelling through peer mentorship and project creation. We have after-school chapters, summer camps, and outreach programs.
Through 62 after-school chapters and 6 summer camps over the last two years, we’ve paired over 3,000 students with over 1,500 high school mentors to design and conduct their own STEM research projects. We’ve also held free online math and science tutoring for transitional homes and community centers, weekly experiments for young girls, and day-long workshops.
When did you first realize you had to take action, and how did you come up with your idea?
Over the summer a few years ago, I met Victoria, who is now the co-Founder of STEM & Buds, at a Speech & Debate Camp. Over the next few weeks, we became better friends. We would meet our speech friends for bubble tea study sessions or had study sessions to get through tedious science homework. And STEM & Buds started to take form. We wanted to create a place where random questions and questionable ideas were forever normalized.
We knew we wanted to try and replicate what we loved about the speech community in science through a couple of things: a peer mentorship model and an open curriculum that lends itself to individualized STEM project creation for every student.
What was your first step?
Reading and listening. Victoria and I spent a month learning about disparities in educational equity and novel STEM teaching approaches through podcasts, published papers, and conversations with the people around us. We then spent another month designing and redesigning curriculum for twelve 1.5 hour workshops.
Afterwards, we recruited volunteers, applied for a school grant to buy needed materials, and secured weekly transportation to a neighboring district without any afterschool programs. That year, we ran our first-ever STEM & Buds chapter.
How did you start implementing your idea?
Building a sustainable chapter model meant revising and refining our infomal Google Docs. (One was titled “Lesson Plans Final” and the other “Lesson Plans Actually Final”!). We turned these materials from our pilot programs into a formalized STEM & Buds curriculum. Once that was finalized, we designed sponsorship plans and branding kits for to scale the project. Then we finally started expanding, recruiting high-schoolers to start STEM & Buds chapters and securing funding to cover all expenses.
In order to diversify our offerings and reach new communities of participants, we also created a more in-depth curriculum for week-long STEM & Buds summer programs.
What obstacles did you face and how have you overcome them?
Our main obstacle was ensuring that partnerships and student leadership teams last. In the case of corporate partners, we’ve worked to maintain relationships by co-hosting STEM & Buds outreach events dedicated towards each of our Gold-level sponsors.
For our high school student leadership team, we’re focused on building sense of unity and a sustainable structure. STEM & Buds includes an executive team, regional directors, chapter heads, and mentors. We also host virtual team-bonding activities like Halloween movie nights and holiday trivia competitions.
Personally, I think the most meaningful thing Victoria and I do is check-in with every regional director and chapter head at least once a month, just as friends.
Who else supported you throughout your journey? What role did they play?
Our high school volunteers are the backbone of everything we do. School secretaries have taught us the warmest cold-emailing techniques, parents have given us helpful tips to best work with their kids, volunteers have showed us which areas of our lesson plans could use more detail. Taking bits and pieces of advice from every corner of the STEM & Buds community has really helped our program grow.
What advice would you give to other young people who want to make a difference but don’t know where to begin?
Learn! Read news articles, books, and research papers. Talk to friends, teachers, and community members.
Before you start brainstorming solutions, understand the problem you care about as comprehensively as you can. That way, when you start thinking of ways you can help, you’ll truly believe in your ideas, and the people around you will too.