UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – “Building bridges” is the first definition of engineering that Rahil Mehta recalls learning as a child.
Penn State sophomore runs summer STEM program for underprivileged children
But then, as Mehta advanced through grade school, he found that many science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts weren’t defined or taught in a participatory way. This, he said, was a challenge for someone wanting to go into a technical field.
Now, as a rising second-year student at Penn State studying applied data science in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, Mehta is changing the learning environment for young students through his nonprofit organization, Future Engineers Unite, which teaches children ages 8 through 11 about STEM using interactive methods.
“When [I was] younger, there was no clear definition of what [STEM] is, and no hands-on experiments at a young age,” Mehta said. “I wanted to fix that misconception I had about STEM at their age.”
Mehta, along with his high school friend Nandini Patel, who is studying biomedical engineering at University Park, founded the organization in 2016. Although activities have been canceled this summer due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the program typically runs six hours per day for five days, and up to four programs are held each summer. Mehta, Patel and a few high school volunteers run Future Engineers Unite programs in local libraries where they can rent rooms for free. The programs are geared towards children in low-income communities and are free for all students who participate.
Each day’s lesson and activities are focused on a different STEM topic, so the students are able to participate in a diverse range of experiences. The program starts out with an interactive presentation about the day’s topic, followed by hands-on experiments the rest of the day to help the participants apply what they learned in the presentation to real-life applications.
“We’re able to give these kids opportunities that they wouldn't normally get,” said Mehta. “We teach them what engineering is from a young age, the importance of it and in our future, and it helps parents with finding places to send their kids in the summer.”
Mehta saw a need for hands-on STEM education in his own community, so currently, the program runs in his hometown of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and a few surrounding towns. However, Mehta said that he hopes to expand the program to other cities and states in the next few years.
“I wanted to create something sustainable that could impact a lot of people in my community, as well as other communities,” said Mehta.
Mehta said that the initial process of starting the organization included a lot of research and contacting connections. The team raised over $500 in grants and even secured a corporate sponsorship. He said that the most important thing he’s learned is the process of creating something from the ground up.
“It helped me grow by learning how to self-start; I think that's the most important thing that I've learned,” Mehta said. “And being able to take initiative even when there [are] no clear step-by step-directions.”
The power of ‘We Are’
Though he just completed his first full year of college, Mehta has already realized the power of the Penn State alumni network and has used it to his advantage.
“That’s something that I wouldn't be able to get without the College of IST; being able to hear people's opinions and feedback, and how they think the organization can grow, and getting their input and perspective on it,” Mehta said. “Being able to learn about their experiences, what they did in college, and how that helped them transition to careers in the industry has been the most valuable thing [I’ve gained] from the college so far,” he said.
Mehta said he chose the College of IST because of his combined passion for technology and entrepreneurship.
"I think that the College of IST really bridges that gap of technology and business,” Mehta said.
Mehta said that the elementary school he attended recently added a course similar to the Future Engineers Unite program and its teachers reached out to him for tips and examples of hands-on experiments to use, which he said showed him that Future Engineers Unite really is making an impact. He said his goal is for the children who participate to develop an importance for STEM and to make it something they enjoy.
“Even if they don't go into that field when they're older, we just want them to know what it is from a young age,” Mehta said. “We think it's really important that in today's society, they're aware of what's going on in terms of breakthroughs in science and in technology.”
Mehta said his favorite part about running the program is interacting with the students.
“I think it’s really fun to see their outlook on science and technology, [since they are] growing up in a new age of so much emphasis on technology,” he said. “Seeing their perspective is really insightful.”