Wilton teens bring free science lessons to kids with Team STEAM: A 'free, fun learning experience'

WILTON — Two local 17-year-olds are turning their passion for sharing their knowledge of science into a unique charitable endeavor that is picking up steam. 

Team STEAM is the brainchild of Riya Shah and Keerthi Vijay — two Wilton High School seniors who volunteer their time to teach elementary school-age kids throughout Fairfield County about science and engineering through their program — for free.

"Seeing the students light up and get excited when they're able to solve a problem or build something is probably one of the greatest feelings,"  Vijay said.

After working with more than 600 children since starting up the program two years ago — thanks in large part to a group of dedicated volunteers and adult mentors — the pair is looking forward to leading their own nonprofit in the not-too-distant future.

"We have secured a lawyer who is willing to help us free of cost,"  Vijay said. The girls hope their crowdfunding efforts will meet the filing and startup costs for their nonprofit organization.

The pair, who have been close friends since they were in orchestra together in elementary school, recently taught separate lessons to kids in Darien, Norwalk and Ridgefield all within the span of one week.

The program, including its 12 other volunteers, is also offered through Wilton Library, as well as the McGivney Community Center in Bridgeport and the Triangle Community Center in Norwalk.

"I thought this was something that was just going to be a summer program, but it had a big response," said Samantha Cardone, children's program coordinator at Darien Library. Cardone said she is amazed that the girls and their team can commit so much time to the program, which is offered for free at the different venues.

The hands-on instruction in STEAM — an education acronym standing for science, technology, engineering, and math — has a direct impact on the children who are participating.

"It's just been very cute to watch them get excited about engineering," Cardone said. About 10 kids take part in each session at the Darien Library, she said.

Team STEAM originated during the COVID-19 pandemic when  Shah — a passionate fan of the study area — found out that science wasn't taught in some neighboring schools due to distance learning. Ultimately, she reached out to a startup company called 3Dux Design in Bridgeport, which provided kits for kids to use virtually.

"So it started as a totally virtual program,"  Shah said, with owner Marci Klein helping to get her set up with the first students for virtual instruction.

"There was definitely this lack of hands-on or tactile learning" with the distance learning during COVID, said Vijay, who then got involved with marketing and expanding the initiative, which ultimately kept going after a return to in-person learning.

"It's just a very creative approach to STEAM," she said.

While they share a passion for Team STEAM, each girl brings different skills and interests to the endeavor.

"Keerthi has been an incredible partner," Shah said. "When she joined the team, she truly helped bring the program to the next level."

Keerthi's entrepreneurship translates into her interest in a business-side future, possibly with a nonprofit after college, she said.

Shah's interest remains with technology and engineering, including space research. She is already committed to attend Carnegie Mellon University.

"Working with Riya has been an amazing experience, especially since we are such good friends," Vijay said. "We make a good team since we have varying interests and skills."

The administrative workings of Team STEAM aside, each girl also shares a love of teaching and working with young kids.

"Team STEAM is fortunate to have students who are always so positive and inquisitive, and that motivates me as a teacher,"  Vijay said.

Shah concurred.

"I love the kids with all my heart," she said, noting the joy of "thank yous" and goodbye hugs — and having students who keep coming back for another class.

"It shows how much they appreciate you and what you're doing," Shah said. "More importantly, it shows that I am achieving my goal and fulfilling my mission of bringing a free, fun, easily accessible STEAM learning experience."

To learn more about Team STEAM's crowdfunding initiative, visit  www.gofundme.com/f/help-make-team-steam-a-nonprofit.