Monica Kavathekar & Caitlin Carfano
Monica Kavathekar &
While Caitlin Carfano was working for a tutoring program in an affluent Washington, DC suburb during her freshman year, she decided she wanted to try to provide similar opportunities for elementary school students in DC public schools. She pitched the idea for a free, after-school STEM education program to her roommate, Monica Kavathekar, and the two began planning.
They took the idea to the former dean of SEAS, Dr. David Dolling, who thought it had promise and was willing to support it.
“When we started this program we needed funding because we wanted to make it free for the schools and the parents,” Caitlin recalls. “The funding was very fundamental because it really kick-started everything.”
Needing a name for the program, they began bouncing ideas off each other and ultimately settled on “Atoms to Astronauts.” “It’s about potential,” Monica explains. “The kids are small. They’re like atoms, and they have the potential to grow into astronauts.” Caitlin adds, “Yeah, my chemistry textbook was on the ground and it had an atom on it, and that’s how it kind of came to be.”
Their idea took root, and four years later the program has 30 student volunteers who lead STEM activities at five public schools in Washington, DC, throughout the academic year. SEAS student volunteers lead the elementary school students through projects that use foam pipes and marbles for “Roller Coaster Engineering;” magnets, string, and paperclips for “Defying Gravity;” and popsicle sticks and marshmallows to build “Marshmallow Towers.”
The goal of the program is to de-stigmatize STEM for kids at a young age and to show them the potential of a career in STEM. “By bringing fun after-school activities to kids, we want to show them that you can be cool and have a career in STEM,” Monica effuses.
Seeing the impact of their idea has been gratifying to both Caitlin and Monica. “What I personally like best is when a kid finally is able to complete the activity, and they get that small dose of achievement. They say things like, ‘Oh my gosh, I did that. I’m an actual engineer.’ And theyare. They’re doing the engineering process. They’re problem solving,” says Monica.
Caitlin and Monica are proud of the success of the Atoms to Astronauts program and want to see it continue. They’ve already lined up two SEAS students to take over the program after they graduate this spring, and they’ve received lots of feedback from SEAS and other GW volunteers about how much they enjoy mentoring the elementary school students. “It’s great to feel that you’re making a difference in a community,” concludes Monica, “but it’s also great to empower other college students to do the same thing.”