Virtual Teen Camps Help STEAM Education Become Accessible Worldwide

Students join Aadhav Prabu’s Virtual STEAM Foundation Camp to explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math./Courtesy of Aadhav Prabu

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For Aadhav Prabu, having mentors and opportunities to learn technology at a young age has changed his life. This sparked a curiosity of STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – which started with 3D printing.

Eventually his interest in 3D printing grew into something bigger than a machine. The 16-year-old co-founded The STEAM Foundation in 2021 to reduce barriers to education for students. Prabu is the director of the program and has developed its mission of accessibility to young people around the world.

Describe your volunteer role with the Steam Foundation.

We are a non-profit organization whose mission is to make STEAM education accessible to all K-12 students through virtual, hands-on learning. My story really begins in fourth grade. I was first exposed to 3D printing all of the STEAM concepts at an after school club as part of one of my classes. While we were learning about 3D printing, we were also learning about different software to create designs and print them. I continued to explore 3D printing and graphics in fifth grade and was lucky enough to have access to a 3D printer in college to make gifts for my family and friends.

One day I wondered why we had this super cool machine, but I was really the only one in the whole school using it. I asked the same question of my librarian, who is now on the board of our organization. She told me it wasn’t necessarily because people weren’t interested, but too few people either knew about it or were afraid to use it and break it.

I thought I might be the one to provide this opportunity to other students in the same way I had the opportunity in fourth grade. I teamed up with my friend Akshar Raikanti, who is now the co-founder of The Steam Foundation, to start a 3D printing club. About thirty students came for twelve weeks. In the end, everyone had their own models that they could take home. In high school, we continued the club. We wanted to have a summer camp of sorts, but the COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible, so we instead created The Steam Foundation to be a virtual space for students to meet and learn in the fall. 2021. Nearly 150 students participated in five camps. We continued to grow and even had sponsors and partners. I am happy to say that we achieved our goal of reaching as many students and growing our team of 425 volunteers. To date, we have trained approximately 1,900 students.

Boy in a white hoodie and glasses.
STEAM Foundation program director Aadhav Prabu leads virtual STEAM camps — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — to increase accessibility to education for students around the world./Courtesy by Aadhav Prabu

What are the barriers to STEAM education for K-12 students?

There is still a lot of interest in STEAM in underserved communities, but the problem is that there is often no accessibility to the technology or someone to teach them. One of the things we wanted to achieve with the STEAM Foundation was to help underserved communities and give them access to technology they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. We have an outreach program where we reach out to schools or communities in disadvantaged areas and support them with curriculum training for equipment or anything they would need to start a STEAM program in their community . We recently launched our 15th outreach chapter a few weeks ago, one of them being international.

Describe the virtual camps within the Steam Foundation.

Now we run virtual camps all year round – three times a year. Our spring and fall camps last ten weeks once a week throughout the year, and our summer camp lasts two weeks each day with multiple options for attendance from June to August. I help facilitate all camps, create programs and work with our directors. We now have seven different areas: 3D printing, robotics, Python, Java, graphic design, iOS application development and video game development. I basically make sure that each camp is going well. I also sift through our feedback and make sure we improve our campus based on that. I also help raise funds through donations and sponsorships.

What inspires you to volunteer?

I thought about this question recently. A story that I think shows why I love doing this is when we started our first 3D printing club. One of the students really liked 3D printing and spent more time in the library with us trying to better grasp the concepts. He really developed a passion for it. When we did our first series of camps at the STEAM Foundation, we recruited him as a co-instructor. He then became a lead instructor who led full camps of 30 students and now he is a program director for 3D printing, managing all of our city’s printing programs.

It just shows how you can go from really knowing nothing to being able to teach hundreds of students. The fact that I was able to help make this happen and trigger this change was amazing. These students can really go on to do really amazing things with this knowledge. Knowing all this, I continue my love for our organization.

What have you learned from your experience as a volunteer?

When we started looking for sponsors, everyone said no because at that time we hadn’t really proven ourselves. We were just a bunch of high school kids trying to teach camps with no evidence that it still worked. Many times I thought, why am I doing this? I continued because we couldn’t run these camps without funds. I learned to keep persevering in the midst of many initial rejections.

Another lesson would be to recruit a team. We realized that recruiting our instructors was not just about getting the smartest people on the team. In fact, they don’t have to be the smartest in the room to be the best teachers. The best teachers are those who are driven, motivated and go above and beyond.

Why is it important for others to get involved, especially young people and students?

It all started in fourth grade when I had a room of parents who were willing to contribute. When you consider teaching and engaging in terms of knowledge that others can benefit from, we can create stories of change. When everyone starts participating, we can grow and reach the most students and spread STEAM to the greatest number.

Are there any partnerships, programs or events that excite you?

We are about to start our fourth quarter of STEAM camps this fall. I’m really excited about this because we have new chapters of outreach and international growth to come. Beyond that, we look forward to launching new programs like video game development.

We also have a interest form on our website for anyone interested in registering for fall camps.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Adhav? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Sam D. Gomez