Fueling STEM Passions; Two Inventive Women Behind the Youth Passion Project—Eva Marder

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

What would you change about the STEM industry we know today? Meet two pioneers who are making that change happen: Aanya Schoetz and Natalie Dowd. Aanya and Natalie are both seniors at Scarsdale High school in New York who are just two of the many forces behind the Youth Passion Project (YPP). YPP is a student-run organization where highschoolers teach free online classes to elementary and middle schoolers. What once started as an idea in quarantine among friends has bloomed into an immaculate global organization that enables children to explore their passions. Natalie, a 3D Modeling Instructor for YPP’s Westchester Chapter, yields an early opportunity for kids in engineering while overseeing the rapid growth of her chapter. Aanya is the organization’s Chief Operating Officer who manages YPP’s Chapter Presidents and quality standards. To find out what it should and shouldn’t take to be a woman in STEM, we asked these innovators to share their stories and ideas. Most importantly, Aanya and Natalie were able to detail the lessons they took away from some of their best and worst experiences in the field.

First, I asked Aanya and Natalie via Zoom, “How did you get involved in the Youth Passion Project? What was your purpose in joining?” I also prompted them for some of YPP’s backstory. Aanya answered, “Providing people that opportunity to explore what they want and what they love is really why I wanted to get involved with the Youth Passion Project.”

“I am one of the four original co-founders. Really, I am going to give complete credit to Zack [YPP’s CEO Zachary Siegel] for this. It kind of came about when the four of us were on a Zoom call. Zack came to us and said “Have you been able to explore any of the things you are passionate about during this time in quarantine?”’ Aanya said that her friends responded with a medley of activities they completed in their free time like coding, writing, research, and even composing an album. Zack countered these responses with his purpose, in Aanya’s words, “What if we were able to make that possible for other people, to explore their passions in some way?” What followed was the brainstorming process that led to the modern semblance of the Youth Passion Project: “giving highschoolers the platform to teach younger kids” combined with dealing “parents some relief from their kids in quarantine,” Aanya said.

Aanya Schoetz and Natalie Dowd

With the young formation of YPP came incredible minds like Natalie: “At some point in quarantine when I opened Facebook for the first time in a year the first thing that I saw was Zack’s post advertising YPP. I reached out to him when I think the first [teaching] session was already underway. A couple weeks later, he reached out and asked if I wanted to teach a class. I have been teaching ever since. I teach two levels of 3D Modeling: beginner and intermediate. I use a modeling program called Fusion 360 that I started learning because my dad is an engineer. But, there aren’t really any opportunities to start learning engineering younger,” she said. And so, Natalie sought to offer that opportunity to youths via YPP.

Thus, the Youth Passion Project was born: a now-registered non-profit organization with chapters in Westchester, Dallas, Fairfield, Austin, Boston, and Houston. YPP is also on track to become a global organization with an upcoming Vancouver Chapter. Natalie reflected on this expansion, “I have done a couple interviews of instructors and it is wild that here is this super cool awesome person that I never would have had the chance to speak to if not for YPP.” Aanya added, “Something I have especially noticed teaching philosophy to second graders is they are so uncorrupted by society that the things they say are the wildest answers to philosophical questions you can imagine.” Among some of Aanya’s wildest experiences with YPP is one child’s in-class response to the infamous ethics Trolley Problem: “All humans are bad,” Aanya recalled him saying. “Let’s just run over them. Humans suck.” On a personal level, Natalie recalled a unique class when just one student showed up. In the end, he went on to introduce Natalie to the stuffed animals in his room over Zoom, making sure she knew their names and backstory.

Outside of YPP, the culture of STEM industries and organizations is not as forgiving. Both Natalie and Aanya shared their experiences of sexism. “The worst,” Natalie revealed, “is when you see women with internalized misogyny.” Natalie said she sees a lot of these women in STEM, who think they are different for being “a girl with practical skills and intelligence.” As a woman who likes carpentry, Natalie also recalled the time she was working at a woodshop when a random man told her that “it’s not supposed to be a girl in the woodshop, it should be a guy in the woodshop.” These acts of sexism from men, however, “aren’t emotionally impactful anymore,” Natalie said, because she has become accustomed to it. One of Font Femme’s purposes is to remove gender discrimination from STEM as a permissible act. An experience of Aanya’s that sadly turned her off of engineering proves the need for this objective. Aanya relayed how she would uncover obstacles “every step of the way I would move forward” in one robotics program. As a member of the STEM extracurricular program, Aanya would often find her ideas ignored by one team member only to be repeated as his own minutes later. Although the issue was eventually addressed by the presiding organization, it highlights the challenges girls are subjected to even amongst their peers.

Despite Natalie and Aanya’s bad experiences in STEM, they were able to cite their interpretations of the industry at large and advice for breaking into it. “I really had to fight to get the leadership position that I did,” Aanya said. After struggling to become a robotics team leader under her biased team captain, Aanya added that she gathered a “ new level of solidarity” for other girls at her robotics tournaments. Aanya mentioned that she experienced this solidarity because women in STEM often get judged “only as good as the last thing they say.” Natalie agreed, “girls just have to work ten times harder. If you make a mistake as a girl, you invalidate the entirety of your knowledge and skill in that area.” To overcome this, Natalie and Aanya offered some words of advice for women considering STEM: “don’t let them doubt your intelligence,” Aanya insisted. Even if you are a beginner, Natalie encouraged, “remind yourself that you deserve to be there. Making a mistake does not mean you are unqualified.”

Get involved with The Youth Passion Project by visiting their website youthpassionproject.org.

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