On June 15, 2019, BranchOut! STEM Education had its fourth annual training at the James Lee Community Center in Falls Church, Virginia. Founded in 2016, the organization’s main purpose is to spread STEM education to underserved communities and improve inter-community understanding through peer-mentoring. Mentors serve at community centers, homeless shelters, and summer schools as of 2019.
Dr. Yuhsien Wu, a Harvard graduate from the School of Education, and Mr. Richard Wang were inspired to create this organization by a talk given by former dean of Harvard Graduate School Jim Ryan about the advances in science and technology. During the talk, many teachers in the audience brought up that the current education system did not allow them to prepare the youth to fully learn about the subject.
“At that time…[we] were in the audience and we were moved...to work with a group [students] to bridge that gap between the youth and what the system offers,” Dr. Wu said.
They started to draft the program in September 2015, but the program only took shape in March of 2016. BranchOut! had its first program in June of the same year. The initial foothold the organization had was one of the biggest challenges BranchOut! had to overcome.
“We actually reached out to different organizations and people trying to sell the idea, saying we had gifted students, they will come to your organization and help you out and mentor your kids,” Dr. Wu said. “But some organizations would [respond warily] since this was a new program. [They wondered how BranchOut! would make an impact]. People didn’t believe us because we had no track record.”
It was not until one of Richard’s friends introduced them to the head of a DC charter school that there was a possibility of a first opportunity for the program. Mr. Simon Rodberg, a Harvard alumnus, was interested and he asked to talk with Wu on the phone about the services.
Similarly, another member of the Montgomery County Public Schools, also a graduate of Harvard, and Wu had created connections with him. “The mission of Harvard to serve the communities was what allowed us to move forward,” Wu said. Starting in 2016, BranchOut! had twenty mentors serving at one charter school in DC. In the past year, BranchOut! had over 130 mentors serving at multiple facilities such as community centers, FCPS Schools, and MCPS schools. Throughout the years, the organization has seen many changes in the impact made in the local communities.
“This year, we are serving many different organizations with different community backgrounds. For example, the Willston community center, where they are predominantly Hispanic. This is our first year working with this group,” Wu said. The large increase of mentors allowed for the organization to reach out more into the community as well as build up leadership in the organization itself.
“From the first year to this year, I have seen the [number of mentors] expand quite dramatically…. One change we have [created] was the [implementation] of the leadership group in BranchOut!” Wu said. “Originally we had five leaders…[and them] managing everything was quite busy. This year we have our management team.”
This management team has many different subgroups, including social media, news reporting, surveying, logistics, fundraising, marketing, and branding. These positions allow for mentors to be more involved in the program, take on leadership roles, and communicate with directors and administrators of the program as well as of other facilities.
BranchOut! continued to build up its reputation as it was awarded the Gold Star Group Volunteer award from the Fairfax NCS (Neighborhood and Community Services) in April this year. However, there are still many factors to improve on for more stability and impact of the organization.
“[Funding] would be necessary to [gain resources] to run this program full time. Most of the funding currently is from donations and periodic fundraising events from the mentors. We have no choice since we have no financial support at the moment,” Wu said. Wu said she is planning to have the program apply for grants or get sponsors to create a more sustainable state of the organization. Besides funding, Wu also is aiming to expand its impact beyond the metropolitan area.
Wu said, “Our goal is to expand to different counties and cities… we have been brought to Baltimore County and even Howard County, which are both brand new to the program this year.” Creating events such as the DC Mall trash pick up and celebration events with FCPS and Virginia representatives present have helped BranchOut! become a much more influential organization than it was in the beginning. With the help of mentor leadership teams and Wu’s motivation, the organization is looking to expand its reach and create more reputation for BranchOut!’s image to ultimately improve the STEM education in communities.
“This way, BranchOut! is branching out to create a situation for a better community,” Wu said.