Sabina London of Haworth can thank the girls who didn’t sign up for chemistry at Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest for the $36,000 prize she received from the Helen Diller Family Foundation this summer.
It was the dearth of girls among the Bunsen burners that sparked Ms. London’s idea for a week-long science camp she called Girl Science Interactive for younger girls.
She was only going into 10th grade then, in the summer of 2013, but that didn’t stop her.
Now the camp she created has expanded into a program, STEM You Can!, which offers free afterschool and summer science programs for girls entering fourth through sixth grades in 45 sites in 14 states.
And for her initiative, she was one of 15 teens honored by the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards this year.
“I knew if there was a way to get girls interested with hands-on experiments, it would boost their confidence,” Ms. London said.
Now, at 19, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is thinking of majoring in neuroscience with a minor in engineering entrepreneurship, she looks back on the camp. “I spent a year developing it,” she said. “Finding experiments, figuring out what girls this age like to learn.”
STEM You Can!’s interactive science experiments range from balloon rockets to powering an electric clock with the energy of two lemons. Topics covered included chemistry, neuroscience, and global warming.
“Kids really love the experiments,” Ms. London said. “I love it when kids come up to me and say, ‘I wish we could do these experiments in school.’”
The Haworth library helped with the program its first year. After that, Ms. London applied for grants, reaching out to mayors and public officials. She also started training other high school students in how to run the program.
The training is all online. She trains regional directors for the different states, who in turn run webinars with the camp directors. They learn how to implement the curriculum. And she teaches the regional directors how to apply for grants to keep the programs free.
This year, there were 20 summer camps, many in low-income neighborhoods. Each camp had about 20 girls.
Recruiting kids isn’t a problem. “Once we put out the program or reach out to schools, we get the kids pretty quickly,” Ms. London said. “Most of the work is preparing high school and college students to actually teach in the camp, and convincing them they can actually do it.”
She hopes to expand the program into classrooms.
“We found a teacher in Arizona requesting donations for materials to do experiments,” she said. “I mailed him our materials and he was able to run the experiments in his classroom. The kids really loved it.
“When I first started, I didn’t realize it would grow so big. I’m so amazed. I remember how difficult it was convincing students they could run camps. Now that students see how successful the program is, it’s not so difficult to do outreach.”
Ms. London said she is “really honored that I got the Diller Award.”
The awards ceremony was “an amazing opportunity to network with past recipients,” she said. “They did workshops for us and gave us advice on how to expand our projects. It was an incredible experience.”
Her own interest in science started at “a pretty young age.” By high school, she found opportunities to do actual research in a Rutgers University laboratory. “That’s when I really started loving it,” she said.
“I knew that at times science could be very hard and frustrating,” she continued. “I had amazing mentors who pushed me through. They were amazing in guiding me through the project and teaching me, and letting me be independent.”
She studied a lymphangioleiomyomatosis, a rare lung disease in which tumors build up in the lungs. “We were looking at the pharmacological pathway that could be targeted for drugs,” she said.
She comes from a science-minded family.
Her parents, who immigrated from Ukraine, are computer programmers. Her brother is a doctor, doing his residency in neurosurgery.
“My dad came as a refugee and the Jewish community here really helped him get started,” she said. “They instilled in me a message of giving back. Giving back has meant a lot to me.”
Do you know teens who make a difference?
The Helen Diller Family Foundation is accepting nominations for the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, a $36,000 prize that recognizes teens for their commitment to social good and volunteer service. Anyone interested in nominating a teen, or any teen interested in applying, should go to www.dillerteenawards.org to begin the nomination/application process. The deadline for nominations is December 18, 2017, and the deadline for applications is January 8, 2018. Self-identified Jewish teens who will be 13 to 19 years old on January 8, 2018 are eligible. Teens who have applied in the past are eligible to reapply.