In May of 2020, the 49ers celebrated a major milestone in the community – the first graduating class from the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute (SLI). SLI was started in 2014 and last year's senior class was the first group of students to complete the full six-year program.
The 49ers SLI students are some of the most creative young minds in the country who not only have a love for STEM education but also for giving back to their community. Nithila Poongovan, a SLI senior at Santa Clara High School has gone above and beyond for the entire special needs community both here in the Bay Area and across the country.
Poongovan, like most of her SLI classmates has a passion for STEM education that transcends the classroom. In her spare time, Poongovan and her friend Meghana Repaka began volunteering at the Santa Clara Therapeutic Recreation Services teaching Robotics and other STEM skills to special needs students.
Poongovan saw how excited these students were and wanted to know more about what STEM skill sessions were offered. Poongovan found out that this was the first time they had ever had a robotics team come in and teach STEM. This sparked an idea and a nonprofit that was beyond anything Poongovan and Repaka could have imagined.
Together they started Young Inquisitive Minds, a student-run non-profit initiative geared towards fostering scientific exploration and curiosity in children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through hands-on STEM activities such as building robots and conducting science experiments, Bay Area students in special education programs are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in extensive STEM learning, inspiring many to pursue STEM careers in the future.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have been unable to hold in-person programs. In place of these in-person sessions, they have been holding virtual sessions via their Facebook community that they have built to expand their reach beyond the Bay Area and impact special needs communities across the country. They have also created a curriculum that special education teachers can incorporate into their lessons, whether that be in-person or via Zoom.
"Since starting our nonprofit, we have spent over 800 hours as a team, worked with over 330 individuals and have an online community on Facebook that supports 181 members of the special needs community," said Poongovan.
They hope to continue to grow the nonprofit even after they have graduated and have given themselves a big goal to achieve. "By 2025, we hope to work with every student in special education in Bay Area, California," said Repaka.
In order to achieve this goal and make STEM accessible to all no matter their age, gender, background or disability they have started a GoFundMe page with the support of their fiscal sponsor, Via Services. To donate and help Young Inquisitive Minds provide supplies to students, teachers and communities across the country, visit https://tinyurl.com/younginquisitiveminds.