Sixteen-year-old Rachel Park sat in science class after science class at Menlo-Atherton High School excited to work on experiments, but was perplexed when she looked around the classroom and saw students sitting in the back staring into their cellphones. Why wasn't everyone as fascinated as she was in science class? she wondered. And how could this be changed?
Park, a sophomore at the Atherton high school, started asking science teachers these questions, including M-A science department chair Lance Powell, and heard a resounding theme: Students in underserved, more impoverished communities lack early exposure to science, which stifles their interest in the subject. Park ascertained that at a diverse school like M-A, where minority enrollment is 61%, and 35% of students are economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. News & World Report, the differences that divide students from Ravenswood School District (where about 56% of students are English-language learners and 89% qualify for the free/reduced lunch program, according to data from the California Department of Education) in East Palo Alto and students from Atherton and Menlo Park also determine students' interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
"I believe the opportunity gap probably stems from latent racism and gentrification," she said. "Just over the bridge divides two completely separate Silicon Valleys."
This past fall, Park acted on that concern, starting Curieus, a nonprofit aimed at fostering interest in STEM among underserved elementary school kids in the Bay Area. The group's name pays homage to Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
In January, Park and other students at M-A began to host hour-long after-school classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays to fourth- and fifth-grade students at the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula in Menlo Park.
In the Silicon Valley, "where students are being forgotten, our goal is to raise their voices," Park said of Curieus' mission. "We know we can't completely solve the problem because the roots run deep, but our goal is to help them (Curieus students) find a passion for their education and, hopefully, for their career later in life."
But this lack of early exposure to science isn't completely limited to schools with students from low-wealth families, said Powell, who teaches advanced placement (AP) environmental science and dynamic ecology at M-A. It is true that Ravenswood students in particular aren't exposed to science much, whereas a student in the Menlo Park City School District might get supplemental science education through programs such as Camp Galileo, he said.
Science can be neglected at many elementary schools -- those, for example, where there is pressure to focus on teaching to standardized tests, and where there are no teachers with science degrees, he said, adding that logistic complications required of science classes contribute to the challenges of teaching the subject. Once students get to M-A they may not be interested in science or may be too embarrassed to immerse themselves in academics, in general, if they feel as if they're behind other students, he said.
Around September 2018, Park began planning and developing what would become Curieus. She sought help from teachers to develop how the program should be structured, the curriculum and the best teaching methods.
She also spoke with Laura Gomez, founder and CEO of Atipica, a Bay Area-based company developing artificial intelligence for more diverse job recruiting, who helped her learn how to effectively run a company.
She contacted Lena Potts, site director of the Boys & Girls Club in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park and found a good group to partner with for educational programs. The club's mission, Park noted, is to empower underserved students.
She had volunteered at Mathnasium, a math learning center, and said it honed her teaching skills.
Curieus lessons are as hands-on as possible and focused on physics, chemistry, biology and engineering, subjects that are essential to thriving in today's workforce, Park said.
The Almanac dropped by the after-school program in mid-March to see Curieus in action. The 15- to 20-student classes are twice a week and are made up of students already enrolled at the Boys & Girls Club. On this day, students made rockets using paper, straws and tape during a physics lesson, and learned that the rockets flew best with fins attached to them.
Lillyana, a fifth-grader at Belle Haven School in Menlo Park, a Ravenswood district school, said she can replicate the projects she's completed in the Curieus classes at home and can show others how to do them.
Jessica, another Belle Haven fifth-grader, said the class combats her boredom and piques her natural curiosity.
Park said it is humbling to see the community come together around her vision.
"Seeing their (students') eyes light up when they see an experiment work and having that 'aha moment' -- that made me feel so good," said Park.
Curieus also hosts workshops with hands-on activities and speakers at local libraries and community centers to cultivate interest in science and technology. The workshops can accommodate up to 20 students and are targeted at students ages 8 to 12. Upcoming workshops include "Future Biologists," a workshop teaching students about living organisms through hands-on experiments extracting DNA from fruit, recreating cellular processes and more.
Park's science background
Park developed a love of science in middle school. The daughter of a dentist and a neurosurgeon, Park said she had wanted to be a New York Times bestselling fiction writer, self-publishing a novel when she was in fifth grade about a 12-year-old finding out about the secret powers of her DNA.
That changed when Park's mother was diagnosed with cancer. She did a "complete 180" and decided to pursue science. She was fascinated that a scientist in a lab could cure her mom's cancer, and realized she wanted to use science to help others.
"I really believe science has the power to help people and solve real-world problems," she said.
Since, Park has immersed herself in STEM studies. In addition to her previous work at Mathnasium, and now Curieus, Park does scientific research at an orthopedics lab in San Francisco.
Park plans to expand the program she founded next school year. Curieus volunteers are training students at Menlo, Nueva, Palo Alto High and Castilleja schools so that these new students can establish chapters next fall.
Park has recruited 15 to 20 high school students to volunteer with Curieus. One is M-A sophomore Maya Khodabakchian, Curieus' director of development, who was a semifinalist in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for her video explaining brain neuroplasticity.
Curieus is also raising money for classroom materials -- basics such as scissors, paper and markers, along with more advanced materials like a 3D printer and microscopes -- for its programs and starting new chapters of the organization at here. The group is aiming to raise $10,000 by the beginning of June, Park said. It had raised almost $6,000 as of May 16. The group also recently became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so it can also accept tax-deductible donations at any time, Park said.
In early May, the Menlo Park Rotary Club granted Curieus $3,000 for a winter break science education program for Ravenswood district students ages 8 to 12, Park said. The grant helps fund facilities, supplies, food and more, she said. Curieus is still searching for a facility for the camp.
Park would eventually like to inspire students from all over the nation and the world to get excited about STEM, she said.
"We're just getting started, but we have a big vision," she said.
For now, Powell has advised Park to not "go too big too fast" to maintain the quality of the program.
Science activities can feel a lot like doing an activity at a birthday party, and that's how adults can get kids hooked on science at a young age, he said. If Park can reach more students with hands-on science projects, then she is "really on to something," Powell said.
For more information on Curieus, go here.