Santa Clara High School senior Nithila Poongovan has lived around the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects all her life. She started working with robotics teams in sixth grade and joined the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute (SLI) in seventh grade. Which is why Poongovan was surprised to learn that STEM activities were not available to all her peers.
“I had volunteered at the sessions [at the Santa Clara Therapeutic Recreation Services] and they had a robotics day…I was volunteering and I noticed that the kids [were] just super excited,” said Poongovan. “I talked to the lead there and she was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the first time we ever had a robotics team come in.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, is that really…Is that true?’”
“It was kind of mind boggling to me to see that someone who is basically in the same community as us, in the Bay Area where STEM resources are so easily accessible and where we are in the epicenter of all things tech…to see that kids with special needs don’t get the same opportunities that we do,” said Poongovan.
Poongovan’s friend, Meghana Repaka, also volunteered that day.
“It was honestly shocking, to say the least. Something so important to me was not even a small part of their lives,” said Repaka, a senior at Lynbrook High School.
So, the two friends put their heads together and they formed Young Inquisitive Minds.
“I had to do something to bring about educational equity between special and general education kids in terms of STEM,” said Repaka.
Poongovan agreed. The pair started out with a five-week session at the Therapeutic Recreation Center and it blossomed from there into Young Inquisitive Minds. Through the program, Repaka and Poongovan have personally worked with more than 330 students with disabilities.
“Meghana and I realized that the most important thing to us was to be the ones who are making the direct impact,” said Poongovan. “The social end of it and making the connections was so important to us. So, now, rather than saying that my organization has impacted like 2,500 kids across the country, I would more proudly say that I have worked with every single one of the 330 kids.”
Young Inquisitive Minds has faced some issues in its first few years. In March, COVID-19 forced the team to rethink how they work and take everything virtual. It made a difference. Young Inquisitive Minds now works with kids in Florida. It’s also working with the California State Council on Developmental Disabilities to connect with more special education programs.
The next hurdle facing the team is finding a new fiscal sponsor. Poongovan is hopeful that it will happen soon, but plans to start a GoFundMe page until a deal can be reached.
“We want to make our STEM resources accessible to everyone. Through the school curriculum, even though they are household materials sometimes household materials aren’t household materials in some houses,” said Poongovan. “So, we’re looking to distribute these materials for all of our school curriculum sessions, which means we need money for that.”
Both Poongovan and Repaka plan to attend college next fall, but they remain passionate about Young Inquisitive Minds. They say no matter where they end up next year, they’re committed to the program and what it means to the students they work with.
“If I could say one thing about Young Inquisitive Minds, I would say it is a place of love and equality,” said Repaka. “There is a love for STEM, a love for helping others, and a love for equality. These two words would describe our initiative in a nutshell.”
You can find out more about Young Inquisitive Minds at https://www.younginquisitiveminds.org/.