California Teen Fosters Accessible Interdisciplinary STEM Education

Daily Point of Light # 7738 Feb 1, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Nidhi Gaonkar. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Nidhi has always been interested in STEM. As a kid, she built walkable popsicle stick bridges and designed contraptions daily. She still enjoys tinkering, testing her creativity to solve problems and all STEM subjects. Through robotics, her science and engineering research, and her leadership roles as President of Dougherty Math Circle and Founder of IntelliHer, she constantly strives to expand her knowledge and cause positive change. In all these endeavors, she is also driven to achieve equity in STEM. She plans to pursue engineering in college so she can continue inventing and contributing to the world around her.

What inspires you to volunteer?

One story that encapsulates why I enjoy doing this is when I hosted a speaker event workshop for IntelliHer students. To get speakers, I reached out to many Society of Women Engineers (SWE) organizations at colleges across the country. I was expecting a few replies, but I ended up having about ten speakers from multiple colleges, including UPenn, UMichigan and more. It was really amazing to be able to personally connect with these undergraduate students and learn about what pursuing STEM looked like beyond the high school setting.

I was exposed to fields like Chemical Engineering and Industrial and Operations Engineering, which I had never explored before. Volunteering is important to me because it isn’t just a way to give back but also to learn and broaden my own horizons. I have learned so much from everyone I meet, and I hope to continue doing so in my future.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Dougherty Math Circle and IntelliHer.

I am currently President of the Dougherty Math Circle (DMC), a 501c3 nonprofit organization that offers free virtual competitive math and data science classes for middle and high school students during the school year. I’ve been active with DMC for four years, and president for two. Currently, there are around 10 student volunteers who dedicate their time to teaching STEM subjects to younger students. We group students by age and teach them in one-and-a-half hour sessions. We teach a competitive math curriculum for middle school and younger students. For high schoolers, we also teach data science, including writing Python code and machine learning, which is an extremely hot topic for STEM students. We have already taught over 600 local elementary, middle and high school students.

Before I became president, DMC wasn’t focused on expanding. We served our school district, and that was about it. I wanted to make it more impactful in other areas, so I conducted an email campaign to reach out to different school districts. Through these efforts, we’ve expanded our reach to 10 times as many kids as when I took over as president.

We have also raised over $5,000 for STEM education for underserved students in California through partnerships with Wexford Way and the Basic Fund. Through fundraising workshops and donations, we also raised over $1,000 for Palestine Relief to help kids affected by the Israel-Hamas war.

I am also the founder of IntelliHer, which is where most of my time and efforts go these days. I started IntelliHer to help girls and students from marginalized groups pursue STEM fields. I do this through a bi-weekly newsletter with STEM opportunities, workshops and mentorship. I also do a lot of marketing for the organization to secure partnerships, and provide diverse opportunities like in marine biology or astronomy. So far, we’ve worked with over 800 students in 20 states and eight countries.

I’ve taken an unconventional approach to bridging the demographics gap in STEM through IntelliHer. There are so many student-led organizations that are focused on one area. With IntelliHer, we believe in interdisciplinary learning. You can be interested in biology as well as coding, for example. Recently, I met with a representative from AstraFemina, a group for women in astronomy and space sciences. I got the incredible chance to speak with a former NASA astronaut. Even without any background or solidified future plans in astronomy, I learned a lot from the speakers’ experiences. This is the kind of inspiration I hope to continue bringing to anyone with an interest in the STEM fields.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

During my STEM journey, I observed a significant lack of female participants in my Computer Science classes and extracurricular activities. So, I joined my high school’s Girls Who Code club in freshman year to recruit more girls into STEM/CS and to share my passion for programming. As Vice President and current President, I changed the curriculum to focus on hands-on coding rather than just learning languages, and instituted mentorship with personal projects. This doubled our membership and resulted in students completing projects ranging from machine learning to HTML websites.

After this success, I aspired to make a broader impact. I wanted to go beyond focusing on specific STEM areas, instead allowing people with multiple interests to have access to all the opportunities available. So, I started IntelliHer, an initiative focused on providing STEM opportunities to students from marginalized groups and connecting them with unique passions such as marine biology and astronomy while also forming a community of like-minded individuals. Increasing the diversity of the STEM curriculum was also a major goal of mine since I am personally interested in a variety of STEM areas, and not all of these are covered in school.

Joining Dougherty Math Circle as a mentor was a smooth transition for me because I had been a part of a similar program in middle school. The mentors who had taught me especially inspired me to help spread STEM to other students.

What are your long-term plans or goals for both organizations?

My goal is to keep expanding DMC to additional school districts. I’m also focused on raising more money, for both the programs as well as charitable giving.

I am looking to create more IntelliHer events where students can collaborate and share their love of STEM subjects. Lately, we’ve been focused on robotics and engineering. In upcoming events, we will be adding astronomy and other more diverse events. I hope to form a more global community during this process.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I am so happy to be able to meet students from all over the world. IntelliHer fosters a spirit of learning from each other. It’s rewarding to see students bonding and forming partnerships and friendships from across the globe. I have become more appreciative of the opportunities that are available to me and if those opportunities aren’t available to all students, I want to do something about it. Our students grow their confidence through creating their own research projects and apps. I love how the teams I lead take so much initiative and create their own events and workshops wherever they see a need.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I realized how much of an impact one individual can have. I never expected how much these organizations could grow and how many people we could help. Taking the first step might be hard, but it has so many rewards. I have also learned to manage a team. DMC is much smaller, but IntelliHer is growing fast. As a founder, I am so thankful to have connected with so many people who are passionate and dedicated to helping spread STEM. This has helped our response and our impact grow significantly. It has been amazing.

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

Currently, IntelliHer partners with the Society of Women Engineers,, the Marine Mammal Center and more. In the future, I hope to expand our reach to other organizations and sponsors to provide more events. The more people we get on board, the more students we can help. We currently have upcoming workshops in AI ethics, astronomy and entrepreneurship.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

Helping others is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. I believe that all it takes is a few steps in the right direction to start a path of impact. And no matter how small, every effort is worthwhile.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

Going from a DMC participant to a volunteer was a straightforward route for me. You could try the same with any club you participate in. If you are part of an organization in middle or elementary school, see if there are opportunities to give back when you are older. There are also many resources online for clubs and volunteer opportunities in your areas of interest. If there’s no existing organization, you can start one. Talking to people can also open your eyes to people who are already doing what you’re interested in. They can mentor you, point you in the right direction or connect you with the right people. Connecting with others is very useful. At almost every event and program I attend, I make sure to discuss IntelliHer and see if students are interested. I also got my other STEM opportunities through emailing and striking up a conversation. Volunteering is really about exploring and interacting.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Nidhi Gaonkar? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Jarmila Gorman