MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ - A 16-year-old from Edison has used his energy, creativity and penchant for public service to develop a tutoring program that has now become an international phenomenon during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shivam Syal, a junior at the Middlesex County Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies in Edison, was inspired to take action when his 11-year-old sister, Maansha, asked him for help with her math schoolwork in April after her school had begun remote learning.
“I personally felt that the one-on-one attention you get in the classroom is something you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “My sister said she didn’t think she was learning as much.”
Shivam, an electrical and computer engineering major at the Edison Academy, said he felt his strong background in science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM disciplines – could be put to use to help other students.
A month later, after he had recruited some classmates and friends and with the support of his parents, Manoj and Diksha, Edison Academy Principal John Jeffries and other school staff, he launched STEMninjas, a tutoring program that now has chapters in three states, Canada, the United Kingdom, India and Ethiopia.
With 80 volunteer tutors, the organization is offering one-on-one online sessions to more than 300 K-12 students, delivering more than 1,000 hours of academic assistance since May. STEMninjas is incorporated as a nonprofit organization.
“I spent a good amount of time thinking through how I was going to organize everything, build a team, come up with the curriculum, finish the legal paperwork to register as a nonprofit, and create a website with all of its information,” Shivam said. “I published the idea on social media to recruit volunteer tutors.”
"This program demonstrates how an innovative group of students can bring about positive changes during a global pandemic," Jeffries said.
A Boy Scout who has been active as a community volunteer, Shivam said he was afraid the United States would fall behind other countries in STEM education as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.
“I was always told to make a difference,” he said. “I felt that this would be a great way to help my community and respond to the rapid changes that students and their families have made to accommodate virtual learning.”
“There aren’t many virtual programs that involve volunteer tutors,” he added.
Tutoring sessions usually last about an hour, but can go longer if the volunteer and student think it’s necessary. The subject matter can be tailored to the student’s needs, and some humanities subjects – such as help with writing -- also have been added.
“A lot of parents were looking for something just like this,” Shivam said. “I got a lot of love and appreciation. It made me feel so good.”
The volunteer tutors must go through an application process and are interviewed before they are paired with students.
“We really know that the tutors are the best our students could get,” Shivam said.
Shivam has begun his college search with virtual campus visits. He hopes he can pass the STEMninjas torch to a younger Edison Academy student once he leaves for college.
Shivam is a competitive programmer who has won multiple “hackathon” events. He has presented research projects in such subjects as artificial intelligence and neurotechnology at Rutgers University. He is an avid public speaker and debater, competing at the Harvard National Speech and Debate Tournament the past two years.
More information on STEMninjas is available at www.stemninjas.org.
The Edison Academy is part of the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical School District, the first full-time county vocational school district in the nation, which also has campuses in East Brunswick, Perth Amboy, Piscataway and Woodbridge, offering 34 career majors. More information is available at www.mcvts.net.