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Rutgers student creates Catalysts for Change program for high school students

In the program, high school students will be able to meet with instructors to learn about their topic, develop new skills, enhance personal growth and create their own passion project.  – Photo by Pixabay.com

Sanjana Pendharkar, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, recently launched a new program called Catalysts for Change, which will provide high school students with the opportunity to create projects that combine a technical topic with an ongoing social justice issue.

She said the program, which will take place virtually this summer, is going to be led by undergraduate and graduate student instructors, who will create and teach a course based on a topic of their interest to educate and mentor high school students.

The program is intended to encourage personal growth and teach students other skills such as how to pitch products, create slide decks for presentations and speak more persuasively, Pendharkar said.

The course will consist of more than 20 lessons during which instructors and students will meet and explore a particular topic, she said. Based on these meetings, students will develop their own “passion projects” around the specific topic, where they can choose their own medium to share their findings.

“(A) passion project might be like building an end-to-end web (application) from scratch, or generating a data science visualization, drawing conclusions, drafting reports and for like the more lab science-oriented people … engaging in personal research in the topic (or) producing a paper with your own work,” she said.

Pendharkar said that other projects might include creating plans for a non-profit business, writing a short book, performing a song, reciting a poem or making a website.

Ultimately, the high school students will be able to present their finished projects to faculty judges on “pitch day,” she said.

“At the very end of the summer program, all the students present their passion projects to faculty members, the top three projects in each social justice category (are) recognized, awarded and also provided with some funds to carry on their project with additional mentorship,” Pendharkar said.

She said this is not like a typical high school project, meaning students should think big and choose something that motivates them or something they would like to personally explore.

Pendharkar said she wanted to launch this inaugural cohort at Rutgers so that high school students have the opportunity to pursue a passion without having to worry about their grades. She said she wished that she was offered such a program in high school to alleviate the stress of college planning and simply enjoy exploring a topic of her interest.

“A lot of high school students really tend to focus on the grades and classes, and of course both of those things are very important, but as long as you meet a certain benchmark … then I think the main thing then is just maintaining that and focusing on actual real life applications of like what you actually learn in your coursework,” Pendharkar said.

Additionally, she said it would be interesting for the students to be taught by undergraduates and graduates since they were high school students themselves not too long ago. Pendharkar said she also believes the proximity in age will make it easier for everyone to work together.

Overall, she said she hopes this program sparks a variety of entrepreneurial and research-based interests in high school students, prepares them for college extracurriculars and helps to create change in social justice issues, especially those that have gotten worse due to the pandemic.

“I hope the passion projects that the high schoolers create really encourage them to dream big and (I hope) that they also end up pursuing these projects and really make a difference in the lives of others,” she said.

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