After witnessing the far-reaching and debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our communities, a group of Pingry students, public school students, and I looked on anxiously, wondering if anything could be done to help alleviate this dire situation. With virtually all schools going remote during the pandemic, many students did not receive the same quality of education that they usually would have, stunting their learning and putting them at a disadvantage compared to their peers. We wanted to help such students continue to learn and enrich them with knowledge that could benefit them down the road.
Thus, STEMinPlace was born: a group of high schoolers who wanted to help the community during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing high-quality, free, interactive, and fun learning opportunities for middle schoolers. “STEMinPlace started as just an idea; I knew I had the goal of teaching middle schoolers these STEM topics, but I wasn’t sure how to get there,” founder Ryan Arrazcaeta (V) stated. After forming a team and creating our website (steminplace.com), we decided on a structure for our program that would effectively educate our students and set us apart from similar organizations. By offering six STEM courses––Chemistry, Physics, Computer Science, Astronomy, Genetics, and Game Theory, we hoped to provide students with various courses that they could choose from, stimulating their interest and potentially sparking a passion for a subject that they were previously unaware of. In addition, we invited guest speakers every week to demonstrate how these topics apply in the real world.
While the structure of our program was coming to fruition, we were worried about raising awareness. Finding enough students for a fledgling organization seemed nearly impossible. We reached out to family and friends to spread the word, unsure if we would even have 10 students. One day, to our surprise, we checked the responses to our signup form and saw over 100 registrations and counting. This shock quickly turned to horror as we were initially overwhelmed by this sudden influx of students. Nevertheless, we adjusted our curricula, prepared for a much more exciting than we previously imagined, and with our combined teamwork, successfully taught just short of 1000 students over the course of six weeks.
Our classes and commitment to education were much appreciated by our students and their families. In part, we continued to receive more signups because of students and parents recommending our program to others. They also expressed their gratitude by commenting on our program. One said, “Volunteer high school kids pulled off remote learning better than the paid professionals at my kids’ private school. What more can I say? Amazing.” Several parents offered donations, but we asked them to donate to other organizations with similar missions, namely the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, Teaching Matters, and the Michael Aymar Foundation.
STEMinPlace has also been an enriching experience for our team. We learned how to run an organization, developed valuable leadership and educational skills, and for some of us, gained a passion for teaching and community service. Connor Chen (V) discovered that he “thoroughly enjoyed teaching others about topics that [he] knew a lot about and realized that sharing [his] knowledge with others is very gratifying. [He] also learned how management works behind the scenes and gained valuable experience in how to run a program with a motivated team to work alongside [him].” We hope we helped our communities in any way possible and provided students with an education that they will never forget.