Lilian Smith, 17, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a junior at Coeur d'Alene High School, co-founded a nonprofit that has organized competitive math teams and/or peer mentoring math programs at 12 local schools over the past three years. When Lilian was in fifth grade, she joined a math team and loved it. But “I knew that many kids in my community, especially at schools that serve low-income families, did not have this opportunity,” she said. So three years ago, Lilian outlined a program that could encourage kids to have fun with STEM subjects while improving their math and critical thinking skills.
First, she persuaded the principal of a local elementary school to let her start an after-school math team. The team did so well that Lilian began forming competitive math teams at other elementary schools in her area, recruiting middle and high school students who excel at math to coach grade school kids each week as they play math games, solve problems and learn new skills. Soon after, she introduced a program in which older elementary students provide one-on-one mentoring to younger learners who need help or extra challenges in math. In addition to recruiting student coaches and mentors, securing funding and charting future plans, Lilian has been the head math coach at one school for the past two years. So far, more than 400 young students have benefited from Lilian’s “Growing the STEM” organization. “The most memorable part of this experience is the time I get to spend with kids each week and getting to see the light bulb go off when they learn something new,” Lilian said.