SPHS Students Help Kids Become Rooted in STEM

Xiyu Wang and Aaron Quan were introduced to science early in life — if they hadn’t, they might have missed out on the experiences that helped spark their passion for that branch of knowledge.

For Wang, her childhood bedtime stories were tales from her cardiothoracic surgeon father’s operations. He would explain and share the procedures he performed, giving her a glimpse into the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Quan also developed a tradition with his father involving nature, through fishing, that ignited his interest in life sciences and plants.

These moments of discovery spurred Wang and Quan’s gravitation to STEM, and ultimately set them on the path that led them to form the nonprofit STEMspiration L.A. through the chemistry club at South Pasadena High School, where they are rising juniors.

The new student-led organization hosted its first exploration camp, aimed at elementary and middle school-aged children, to introduce them to STEM concepts so the experience might provide them with a discovery moment of their own.

The five-day camp was jampacked with experiments involving bacteria cultures, strawberry extraction, yeast gas balloons, lava in a cup, lemon volcano, electromagnetism and egg drop engineering and design.

“Throughout elementary and middle school, there isn’t really much emphasis on science beyond the classroom, so we wanted to reintroduce science to the kids in the form of fun experiments,” Wang said. “Especially with this past year of being in quarantine, we wanted to provide them with much needed, in-person interaction. With this project, we hope to bring STEM excitement to kids and make memorable moments for them.”

STEMspiration L.A. partnered with the South Pasadena Unified School District to distribute a flier and recruit potential camp participants, which resulted in more than 30 children signing up for the camp. 

Benjamin Ku, the chemistry club adviser, supervised the camp and helped STEMspiration L.A. get on its feet so that Wang, Quan and student volunteers could help serve the community.

“I provided the logistical support, working with the school administrators to ensure the needs” —facilities, communication, publicity — “were met,” Ku said. “Xiyu and Aaron created the website, connected with interested families, recruited and trained volunteers and prepared the materials for the camp.

With over 30 4th- and 5th-grade students engaging in a range of hands-on activities and clear science presentations, there were overwhelmingly positive responses to the camp. For many of the kids, this was their first extended physical interaction with other kids due to COVID.” 

Photo courtesy Xiyu Wang – Sebastian Macias receives help from Xiyu Wang during a yeast gas balloon experiment.

The group also applied for grants and received $1,250 from the Los Angeles chapter of the Awesome Foundation and Young Service America in partnership with a Hershey Heartwarming Young Heroes grant to go towards their camp and future projects.

“This community service is something we’re really passionate about and something we voluntarily do for the love of our community,” Quan said. “It has been a great experience. We’ve made a lot of memories and enjoyed every single day of camp.”

Added Wang: “One elementary student said our camp was ‘better than recess,’ which was a huge accomplishment. Hearing positive feedback from the kids and their parents has really encouraged us to continue doing the camp.”

Wang and Quan plan to host the camp annually and even expand it beyond SPUSD to reach more children and introduce them to STEM.

“It was a gradual process of us being introduced to science and finding an interest for it, but I think the whole point of our camp is to help spark that interest in children at a younger age,” Quan said. “While we were able to get more involved in STEM in high school, we wish we could have gotten into it earlier. If you can spark an interest early, there’s so much more that you can do.”

Wang said the camp is meant to provide children with positive experiences with STEM.

“When they enter high school, I don’t know how much they’ll remember about the camp, but they will always have the feeling of excitement that remains,” Wang said. “That’s the long-lasting impact we hope this camp has on them.”

Quan is interested in physics, botany and agriculture, whereas Wang’s focus is on biology and chemistry.

“In high school we have a really great community of people who are interested in science,” Wang said. “Having that community where people are so encouraging and passionate about the same thing and all looking to learn more and from each other — that has really shown me how important this community is. Knowing that there will always be this community of people interested in science has really encouraged me to keep going in this field.”