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News / Clark County News

Camas students turn science club into nonprofit

STEM Scholars connects high school mentors, middle school students

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 27, 2023, 6:16pm

The introduction to the world of remote learning wasn’t one that came entirely by choice. Teachers and students alike hoped Zoom classes and prerecorded assignments would be temporary fixes for business and education while the world waited to return to in-person life.

One group of young students in Camas, however, haven’t relegated online models to the past just yet. In fact, in just a year, they’ve turned an in-school math and science club into a nonprofit organization connecting students with tutors across the country.

The nonprofit, called STEM Scholars, was founded by Camas sophomores Zaina Hwejj, Sophie Zhang and Florence Liang. The organization features dozens of high school mentors connecting with K-8 students across 10 states to get advice from older students and learn specialized lessons in environmental science, biology and more.

The goal is to help show kids at a young age that science education can be more than the rote memorization of natural systems, they said.

“We really wanted to help expose more kids to research in science,” Hwejj said. “It’s so great because you’re coming up with your own inspiration, you’re figuring out things that you haven’t been done before.”

Inside the model

Much like any high school or college class, STEM Scholars gets its students started with registering for Google Classroom — an online hub for lesson plans, work calendars and message boards. From there, students can view prerecorded lessons on an array of subjects, schedule group meetings with other peers or meet with mentors, including Hwejj, Zhang and Liang.

Not only can mentors connect with like-minded students and develop their teaching skills, they can put their work into the program toward volunteer hours required for graduation through the Presidential Volunteer Service Award.

By the end of last school year, STEM Scholars’ leaders estimated they had as many as 45 mentors connecting with dozens more students.

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“It’s such a great network. We’ve made all these little communities,” Hwejj said. “The lesson topics are all based on student input, we receive suggestions through Google Forms. All this stuff can be tailored to what students want to learn about.”

From club to institution

Hwejj and Zhang found passions in science from an early age. But it was when they learned how basic lessons could connect to real-world issues that the interest blossomed into something they wanted to build on in their free times.

“One thing I learned about in middle school was the use of road salt for de-icing,” Zhang said. “We learned about alternatives to things like sodium chloride that were better for the environment; things that were being used here in (Washington).”

While speaking with other students, they realized lots of kids would get more interested in science when it was connected to something in their own community. In science classes, however, there were few opportunities for student-led research projects. And during pandemic-enforced lockdowns, it was hard for students to bounce ideas off each other like they might do in the classroom.

“When we had the club, most of the members were students at Camas Connect Academy,” Hwejj said. Camas Connect Academy is a virtual learning option for middle-schoolers in the district. “A lot of kids came to us seeking that student-to-student interaction. We realized what was lacking, too, were ways that middle-schoolers could get advice from high-schoolers.”

As the club grew, one of its big uses shifted to serving as a place for older students to share advice on which classes were most engaging and what they should expect based on personal interests.

“Kids want to know what classes they should do and what will actually help them,” Zhang said. “They want to hear what we thought of it, how we benefited from them.”

Continuing to grow

As Hwejj and Zhang continue their education in Camas still with three years before graduation, they say that one of the things they’ve already learned about the most is just how hard it is to be a teacher.

“It’s made it, for me, a lot easier to appreciate our teachers,” Zhang said.

“As a mentor, I get a lot of inspiration from my math teacher,” said Hwejj. “I noticed I use a lot of the same words and phrases they do, even without realizing.”

So far, there’s lots of interest in the prerecorded lessons and one-on-one study help. Over the next year, the group hopes to see more engagement in ideas for long-term research projects.

“Remote learning is a great way to connect when you can’t see people in person, and sometimes it’s just much more convenient,” Zhang said. “There’s lots more opportunities with research when you get access to so many people your age who want to learn more.”