This feature is part of the National Alliance's 2021 Back to School Month campaign.
When student scientist and 30 Under 30 Changemaker Gitanjali Rao isn’t working on saving the planet—she’s playing the piano, trekking with her family, spending time with friends, or watching movies. She's also a rising junior at STEM School Highlands Ranch, a charter school in Colorado.
We recently talked to Gitanjali about what she is looking forward to the most during the new school year.
What did you do over the summer?
My summer was filled with activities. It included several hikes in the local mountains and few vacations locally. I also attended the Tribeca Film Premier for 3M’s “Not the Science Type” to influence the next generation that scientists are not age, color, or race-specific. I conducted my innovation workshops for more schools across the globe and reached about 50,000 students across five continents.
What do you like most about connecting with thousands of students from around the world?
I feel a sense of moral responsibility to share that there is an inequality in the opportunity for students worldwide in terms of resources. For example, some schools are introduced to typing and the internet as STEM lessons while others introduce coding, 3D printing, and cybersecurity as STEM lessons. Things I have taken for granted, such as clean drinking water and basic school necessities such as books, the internet, and qualified teachers, are not easily available everywhere. It helped me learn about different cultures, tolerance levels, and the value of hard work. It warms my heart to see these students’ responses that they were unaware of certain options, resources, and tools available.
I started this program to introduce STEM and innovation to students, but I learned from them and fostered lifelong relationships. I have received heart-warming responses of encouragement and inspiration with detailed discussions in classrooms that sparked other innovations, which are invaluable. Thank you cards and feedback from teachers and students across the world inspire me to help others because every student deserves an education with opportunities. Students from Kakuma refugee camp just sent me pictures where they have started their STEM classes with the help of my book. Helping the community that inspires students with a can-do attitude is very self-satisfying. I am fortunate to get support from my mentors at an early age for some of my innovations.
What are you looking forward to most about the new school year?
I am definitely looking forward to meeting my teachers and friends in-person. For the last 1.5 years, I have attended virtual classes, so this will be exciting. For the first time, I will be taking courses at University of Colorado, Denver as a dual enrollment. I am both excited and nervous. I have to improve my time management skills that will allow me to continue conducting these sessions from school lunch breaks, study halls, or before and after school, in addition to continuing my research projects.
Will you be participating in any extracurricular school activities?
Yes, I will still continue my research at the University of Colorado, have planned collaborations with organizations to conduct more of my innovation workshops across the globe, in addition to piano, fencing, and glider lessons. I hope to get my flying license when I turn 16 in November.
What do you think makes your school experience unique?
I can dream of grand plans to influence a global innovation movement in addition to my academics because my school is very supportive and flexible. Our teachers are willing to guide and motivate us to continue our journey, no matter our passion, besides school.
I believe developing our problem-solving mindset, providing the flexibility, and the opportunities we are given to try makes our school unique. My school has partnerships with organizations where we can extend our learning to apply what we learned as interns whether it is in a STEM, finance, or social policies and law field.
What first interested you in the STEM field?
There was no specific instance that was an “aha” moment for STEM. There was always an encouragement to think differently, try different things, and draw ideas or solutions. Problem-solving became a habit using tools and knowledge we have read or heard about. I still remember playing games at home with parents and friends, where we would be given impromptu problems and we would come up with solutions at home. The focus was on creativity, use of technology, usability, and our ability to communicate the idea concisely.
How can readers help support your efforts?
I request educators be supporting mentors for students and introduce innovation earlier in the curriculum. My book, A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM, provides a guide for teachers with simple lesson plans and includes a list of competitions and contests for students. Create your own Innovation clubs in your schools with a goal to encourage innovation. With part of the proceeds from my book, I donate my book to students in refugee camps or Title 1 schools. Organizations can support me by sponsoring events and facilitating innovation workshops for lower economic area schools that may otherwise not get the opportunity.
Brittnee Exum is the manager of communications and marketing at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
If you are interested in connecting with Gitanjali, contact email@example.com.