Welcome to the Information Age series on Diversity & Inclusion Champions. This week, we speak to Siddarth Verma of BrainSTEM on giving opportunites to students who aren't at the top of their class.

With its focus on Year 12 examinations and competitions for scholarships and extension programs, Australia’s educational system has long been focused on promoting the ‘best of the best’.

But what happens to the rest of the students – the ones who are just as curious and capable but, for reasons out of their control, simply haven’t had the same opportunities?

This was the question that Siddharth Verma – a 22-year engineer and technologist whose many roles include Director of healthcare consultancy Corazon Systems – and his wife began asking themselves, during a trip to the United States for their son’s participation in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

“It was obviously very inspiring to be in the company of these young minds with such amazing ideas,” Verma told Information Age.

“But we started thinking that if those were the ‘smart’ ones that got there – what about the ‘smart’ ones that never got the chance to come? What about the ones that never got the opportunity because there is a bias against them, because of their gender, colour, religion, or socioeconomic background?”

A STEM star is born

Since 2015, more than 350 Victorian students have completed seven ever-larger instances of the BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge – BrainSTEM being an acronym for Bringing Research and Innovation to STEM – and the eighth Innovation Challenge kicks off in March.

The program has intentionally sought to reach past the traditional top-tier students – the ones getting straight As and dominating classroom discussions – to focus on fostering the talent of school-age students who might otherwise fall out of conventional talent-identification processes.

“We do not want the A+ students,” Verma explains. “We want the large cohort of students where the teacher has seen something in that student, or perhaps they were always overshadowed by the ‘smarter student’ in the class.”

“This is the middle 85 percent of students who run Australia – the B-minuses and C-plus students – and they are the rough diamonds that we can pick up and hopefully open their eyes to wider possibilities.”

Teachers nominate students for the program, which began as an 8-week mentorship engagement but was steadily expanded to the current 12 weeks after student feedback that it wasn’t long enough.

Students work in teams with volunteer mentors (academics / PhD candidates) from the universities and research organisations, to brainstorm and identify a problem, then develop and implement solutions to that problem and present it to peers and family members at the end of each program.

Inclusiveness spans gender, resources, distance

Because of the program’s design – and reliance on teacher nominations rather than cutthroat selection tests – the program has maintained a much broader spirit of inclusiveness than similar programs previously have.

More than 60 percent of participants in the free program are girls, and over half come from lower socio-economic backgrounds that might otherwise have compromised their access to private schools and the opportunities that come with them.

“It’s never a question of affordability,” says Verma. “It’s a question of interest. Put your hand up and we will find you a mentor.”

The pool of industry mentors is diverse in its own right, with men, women, and a range of sexual preferences represented.

Mentors and teachers co-ordinate continuous communication between team members using tools such as Slack channels – which, along with face-to-face contact, have so far seen students access more than 4,000 hours of mentoring expertise.

Yet even with the opportunities presented by the BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge, Verma was concerned that the program’s metropolitan Melbourne focus was excluding other groups of students that were brimming with potential.

Thus was born the Regional Girls Innovation Challenge – a 12-week program, run in conjunction with WiSPP and STEM Sisters – that matched students from rural Gippsland with 13 mentors from the Melbourne Biomedical Precinct in Parkville.

Some 9 teams of four or five girls participated in the inaugural challenge, which ran from March to June 2018.

“The stories coming out of the challenge, and the impact it’s had on students and increasing their level of interest towards education, was incredible,” says Verma.

The second Regional Girls Innovation Challenge is slated for later this year, and Verma wants to reach more than 400 schoolgirls in regional areas within the next few years.

Yet if he had his way, such a specific event wouldn’t even be necessary.

But for now, its strongly positive results and broad inclusion have helped highlight the untapped intellectual resources that are being needlessly disadvantaged by factors such as distance.

Verma admits to being “almost borderline obsessed” with gender equality.

“I want gender equality to become a normalised conversation,” he says, “and to get to the point where we don’t even have to talk about it.”

Always more challenges

At its core, the BrainSTEM Innovation Challenge and its derivatives – a new International Design Challenge this year will provide a one-week, on-campus program at a university in Melbourne – are less about competition and more about engaging students to better understand how their interests can be applied to real-world issues. The program also starts to introduce the concept of Design Thinking and understanding how it is becoming an essential part of broader learning conversation.

Verma wants to develop life-long learners – and he knows the program is working because many past participants have already become ‘ambassadors’ who are actively encouraging their classmates to get involved. “We are starting to measure the impact of the program and are constantly evolving to ensure it continues to meet its desired objectives”, Verma said.

“Our challenge is not that we don’t have enough students, but that we don’t have enough mentors,” he laughed, while noting that university academics have stepped up to the challenge and corporate partners are also starting to come to the table.

Over time, a growing focus on entrepreneurship and business sense will further fill out the story, helping students not only solve problems but figure out ways to realise their solutions for the greater good.

“Everyone should have what I call a ‘world domination idea’,” Verma said.

“Our vision is to build a global collaboration platform where high school students from all over the world can connect and collaborate with each other and solve real-world problems that matter to them.

“We want to engage them, inspire them, and teach them how to fail fast and learn from it – so they can build a better world for themselves.”