Jessica Sun, a junior at Virginia Tech, studies computer science with a minor in math. She serves as CEO of Kids Are Scientists Too, with 2016 marking her fifth year of involvement.
KAST is a national nonprofit that provides free, interactive science lessons to underresourced elementary and middle schools. Sun additionally relaunched the Active Minds chapter at Virginia Tech, which focuses on spreading awareness about mental health. Sun is ultimately interested in human computer interaction and its applications in facilitating the learning experience for adolescents, especially for those with mental health conditions. In her spare time, Sun leads the women’s table tennis team at her college.
We recently conducted a Q&A with Sun about her nonprofit and her interest in computer science.
WashingtonExec: How did you become interested in computer science and math?
Jessica Sun: I started out as a mechanical engineering major with a CS minor at Virginia Tech, having developed an affinity for physics in high school. Eventually, I began taking classes that I no longer found interesting for MechE but at the same time took introductory classes for CS.
It was perfect timing – I fell out of love with MechE and into love with CS. Every problem in CS was a new logic puzzle, and I always loved problem solving. The logic involved in CS was very alluring, and I love the endless challenges it presents. In addition, there are so many applications of CS nowadays, and I look forward to exploring different avenues I can take with it. For my math minor, the subject is a necessary foundation to both CS and physics. I have always had an appreciation for it and wanted to pursue it in college as well.
WashingtonExec: Why did you found the Virginia branch of Kids Are Scientists Too?
Jessica Sun: I first found out about KAST through a social entrepreneurship program in D.C. during my sophomore year of high school. Its mission to inspire young students to see that science is much more than memorizing terms, but rather discovery was something I strongly believed in. I felt that many of my peers, especially girls, shied away from science because it “boring” or “uncool.”
I had several teachers during my public school education who showed me otherwise, and I wanted to pass on that experience and knowledge to as many students as I could. KAST felt like a real chance to make a difference in youth while they still were developing. We target underprivileged areas, providing a free program with very low-budget lesson plans that our own volunteers fundraiser for. We find that it’s in those areas especially that students have not had adequate exposure to STEM.
WashingtonExec: Why do think more kids should be involved with STEM?
Jessica Sun: Many students feel intimidated by math and science, or just think it’s boring because oftentimes, it’s presented as memorization of textbook pages. In my opinion, it is exactly the opposite. STEM is about critical thinking and problem solving with endless possibilities, from curing cancer to cleaning the oceans.
While by no means does every student need to grow up and major in a STEM field, having STEM-related skills is no doubt beneficial. Learning about STEM subjects gives students a broader perspective and teaches them different ways to think about problems.
At KAST, we want to give these kids the transformative experience in the moments when they realize science truly about creativity and helping humankind. When we teach, we know that 5 years from now the students will likely not remember the density of water. However, we do feel that they will remember the magical moment they saw color dye shoot across milk because of science and the polarity of molecules.
WashingtonExec: What have you learned from serving as the CEO of KAST?
Jessica Sun: Every day in this role, I am learning from the kids, my peer officers and most certainly, the high school students I mentor. These students starting branches all over the country inspire me daily. Their drive to make their community a better place and dedication to run a successful branch never cease to amaze me. KAST leaders have gone on to outstanding colleges and many continue on as a mentor within KAST.
Some high school students have even considered going into a STEM education career track because of their positive, heartwarming experiences teaching these elementary school students. While I have also learned how to manage and inspire a group of students through articulation of my vision for KAST, the main takeaway I have every Sunday during our weekly meetings is a renewed drive to mold KAST to the best it can be.
After hearing the high school students’ progress every week, my determination increases exponentially to get the KAST program to more and more students so they can experience STEM learning in a different way.
WashingtonExec: Do you see yourself continuing your work with KAST or pursuing a career in computer science?
Jessica Sun: I hope to do both. Jess, the former CEO, still comes to our weekly meetings while working full-time in NYC. I hope to also serve in an advisory role to the students, and lend my voice to the next CEO. I definitely believe KAST has huge potential, and want to continue to be part of the movement to get it to its greatest heights.
The Annual K-12 STEM Symposium will be held March 25, 2017, in Herndon, Virginia. The largest K-12 STEM Symposium in the National Capital Region is a free, all-day forum that equally engages local parents, educators and children. Sign up by visiting www.stemsymposium.com. Sponsorships are still available.