Depending upon your own educational experience, there were likely topics that you never fully grasped, or questions that you had that fell outside of the prescribed curriculum. What a benefit then, that students today have outside resources to turn to pursuing their educational goals, and exciting to see that no small number are from young people seeking to lift up their peers.
I recently spoke with Victoria Ren, a high school junior who is the cofounder of both STEM & Buds and Stuff We Don’t Learn at School (SWDLS) out of Pittsburgh. Both organizations are doing great work to further education outside of the classroom, and her passion for the goals she and her team are trying to achieve shone through in her responses.
Mary Juetten: When did you start?
Victoria Ren: In the summer of 2018, I met Ashna Patel, then my mentor and now the cofounder of STEM & Buds while wandering the halls at a Speech & Debate summer camp. As we quickly became friends, we recognized a need to replicate what we loved about the speech community—unconstrained discussion and unconventional friendship—in the scientific community. Our vision, STEM & Buds, began as recruiting friends to establish an after-school club in a neighboring, under-resourced school turned into a team of over 100 members with around 60 cost-free programs across the globe. Today, we’re proud to call the 3,500 students and mentors directly involved family.
In the summer of 2020, “How to Reduce Racism in Biology” by The New York Times sparked the idea for Stuff We Don’t Learn in School (SWDLS). After reading the article, I was compelled by the topic but also confronted with previously unanswered implications of the inner workings of our body and racial prejudice, forcing me to reconcile for the first time with the notion that what we exclude from education often resonates just as clearly as what we do include. It’s been a little under nine months since we started, and we’re still finding our footing—but we have been fortunate to reach over 5,000 people since then through various platforms (Instagram, our website, Spotify, etc.)
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
Ren: STEM & Buds is a for-youth, by-youth 501(c)(3) redefining inclusivity and accessibility in STEM by bridging students to mentors, shaping ideas into initiatives, and translating science for civics through after-school chapters, summer camps, outreach programs, and partnerships. For students, STEM education is often metric-driven and one-dimensional, which excludes marginalized narratives and interdisciplinary change-making; we address this by building educational environments centered around peer-mentorship to amplify all voices and individualized project creation to encourage intersectional impact. Ultimately, by building a pipeline of civically-minded STEM students alongside strategic, cross-sector partnerships, we hope to transform what science-driven advocacy and engagement look like for everyone.
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SWDLS is a youth-run media project democratizing relevant and engaging education—the social, political, and economic implications of various topics—through multimedia breakdowns: bi-weekly podcasts (the why), newsletters (the what), and resources/partnerships (now what to do). In school, we all learned how to solve math problems, write English essays, create Punnett squares, and the list goes on. But, the age-old question has always been why. SWDLS aims to answer this and serve as a space to push the needle of education reform—applicable knowledge and challenging conversations—forward, all in a convenient and digestible format.
Juetten: Who are your users and how do you find them?
Ren: With STEM & Buds we find our middle and elementary school-aged students from public schools to local libraries to transitional homes, whether it’s through cold-calling or targeted emailing. We focus on forming community-specific infrastructure, where our program model revolves around tailoring curriculum to local issues—like designing air-quality testing near steel mills at our Pittsburgh chapters or analyzing threatening biodiversity crises in our Turkey region.
With SWDLS, our audience ranges from middle schoolers to middle-aged folks but largely centers around youth. Through reshares on social media and simple word-of-mouth, we’ve been organically growing. To cater to all who support our work, we like to joke and say that we’re the paper, possibly less-exquisite version of Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act, filled with one-liners and asides to make learning entertaining—and we use micro and macro, individual and institutional lenses to write and frame each topic.
Juetten: How did past projects and/or experience help with this new project?
Ren: Beginning and developing STEM & Buds felt (funnily enough) like the Easter Egg hunts I’d go on as a kid, where I had strong convictions over what our end goal was but spent much time wandering freely and aimlessly. Ashna and I were 14 and 13, respectively, so STEM & Buds is the product of trial-and-error and a reflection of our personal growth. But even so, my formative experience with my third-grade teacher ultimately gave me the much-needed confidence to form mini-ventures like organizing a lunch-reading program for lower-proficiency Kindergarteners or developing drawings for local animal shelters. This, in turn, fostered a growing interest in social innovation and provided some basic foundation to turn intentions into initiatives—paving the way for both projects, STEM & Buds and SWDLS, a few years later.
Juetten: Who is on the team?
Ren: As a for-youth, by-youth organization, our STEM & Buds mentors—our backbone—push forth our vision of every student having the friendships and support to gain confidence in themselves and their ideas.
Our chapter heads bring our 12-session program and/or summer camps to their communities, creating cost-free opportunities for younger students and giving them the agency to use STEM as a force for civics and social good.
Our regional directors oversee all chapters in one location and lead our annual STEM & Buds fair: bringing everyone together, celebrating each years’ accomplishments, and forging lasting connections in the years to come.
Our outreach team uses their unique passions—be it gender equity, music, or art—to lead niche programs and events to make STEM more accessible and approachable for all kids.
In our executive team, Ashna and I—alongside five other dedicated individuals (shoutout to Saachi Aggarwal, Anchey Peng, Gianni Romano, Lena Voss, and Samhita Vasudevan)—focus on operations (finances, outreach, etc.) and long-term goals (equity-driven programs, high school-centered mentorship, etc.).
With SWDLS, we have a small, incredible team of six managing all content and operations. Samantha Podnar is the voice of our work; Gloria Wang, our look; Jenny Zhu, our conversations; Sophie Lu, our resources; Emma Scott, our digital content; and Katharine Peng, our partnerships.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
Ren: We’re incredibly grateful to have raised thousands of dollars for STEM & Buds from our students’ parents’ kind donations to local companies’ gracious sponsorships to national foundations’ sustained grants, all of which help us maintain our values of inclusivity and accessibility.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure—what’s your favorite startup story?
Ren: I find the evolution of McDonald’s wildly interesting because its golden arches serve as a cultural hallmark that directly represents the notion of franchising. The juxtaposition of the McDonald brothers—two siblings with a vision for quality fast food—and Ray Kroc—a businessman with ambitions for growth and domination—underscores a fundamental question: at what point, if any, does quantity justify sacrifices to quality? And if executed correctly, does there even need to be that delineation? I recently read an article on social sector franchising, and the idea seems to currently exist in a grey area of sounding too corporate while also having vast potential. Following a similar model to McDonald’s could revolutionize local stakeholder involvement for community-oriented social impact.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
Ren: At STEM & Buds, we define success as the qualitative impact we have—the confidence gained, skills developed, and aspirations actualized for the students, mentors, and leaders. Success can look like two students at our early Pittsburgh chapters working on a gender bias project through surveys and analysis, ultimately implementing gender sensitivity training sessions at their school. It can also be a student from our very first chapter, reaching out as their school’s first-ever science fair entrant years later; it can be the handful of students-turned-mentors now leading our chapters. While seeing the numbers is gratifying, the relationships are why we do what we do—because human-centered education creates a rippling effect.
At SWDLS, we measure success through the responses to our content—whether it’s a reader thanking us for covering how small businesses aren’t reflected into the stock market to a listener who feels comforted listening to our loneliness podcast episode. It’s often difficult to fully grasp impact when working in the media space, but our hope is that each topic we cover through different mediums gradually opens up closed minds and affects change, beginning with conversation.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
Ren: Record everything! Of course, clearly reflecting on what worked and what didn’t or your impact numbers is crucial for transparency and accountability. But, don’t forget to write about your feelings, revelations, and experiences as you’re going through this process too. It will serve as a reminder of how far you’ve come when you’re confronted with seemingly impossible challenges,
When you feel as if you’re hitting a breaking point, personally or professionally, when you feel alone, bombarded with scathing, self-induced insults about yourself and your work, when you feel powerless, overwhelmed by the complexity of each problem, have faith. It sounds trite but there are so many uncontrollable factors every day, everywhere. But, you can control your view, so believe that you and your team will find a way, that everything will work out, that the work you are doing—the vision you’re forming—is sincerely worth it.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
Ren: At STEM & Buds, we plan to continue refining our existing programs of chapters, camps, and outreach programs to intentionally adapt to virtual/in-person learning, systematically localize our curriculum, and formally diversify our audience. Since our organization and team is evolving, we’re currently creating collegiate-based programs that integrate STEM & Buds with existing university clubs to sustain our education-based pipeline. To address structural gaps in our science frameworks, we’re forming partnerships—be it with religious institutions, media centers, or nonpartisan organizations—to change science communication.
At SWDLS, we plan to continue breaking down topics from astrology to AAVE through our podcasts, newsletters, and resources/campaigns—with an emphasis on collaborating with existing organizations working in education reform or the topics we cover to extend impact, be it through virtual events or practical guidebooks.
Long-term, while gradually growing our audience, we hope to serve as a constant place where people can simply and easily receive diverse, thoughtful, and regular content, and in the future, possibly partner with schools to institutionally change how and what we learn.
Thanks to Victoria for her passion and I am impressed by her and the team’s commitment to make positive change while still in high school. The notion to not just look at metrics but to practice self-reflection is wise advice for all entrepreneurs. #onwards.