Portland Junior Scientists encourage other teens to join

by: REVIEW PHOTOS: VERN UYETAKE - Portland Junior Scientists include, front row from left, Ellen Walker, Meghana Rao, Tara  Raizada, Jordan  Calverley and back row from left, Fitsum Dejene, Sunjay Mouli, Samir Shah and Arjan Mouli.A group of schoolmates at Jesuit High School really likes science, so much so that they formed an organization, Portland Junior Scientists, to share their enthusiasm with elementary students.

The members of Portland Junior Scientists are so enthusiastic about science that two different foundations have awarded funds to support their work.

“It all began when I volunteered to teach tennis at Portland After School Tennis and Education during the summer of 2011,” said junior Meghana Rao.

PAST&E is a year-round nonprofit program that offers tutoring and tennis lessons for at-risk students and an eight-week summer program that serves more than 250 elementary school-aged children in the Portland metro area. Many of the students in the program attend James John Elementary, where the impact of budget cuts had caused a de-emphasis on science to meet benchmarks in reading and math.

“When I heard their exposure to science experiments and projects was limited, it made me sad because science is my favorite class,” Rao said. “I thought it would be something I could help out with.”

Rao enlisted the aid of Ellen Walker of Lake Oswego and Tara Raizada, both seniors, sophomore Samir Shah and his brother, Saloni, who graduated in June 2012. They began teaching during the fall of 2011.

“This is totally a student-run program,” Walker said. “We write the lessons and everything.”

“Each team member of PJS has a passion in advanced math and science and has committed a large portion of their high school lives to PJS,” said Rao. “Each of us is equally driven to help our students. Every week we meet to plan the next lesson and reflect on what we did well and what we can improve. We spend our free time emailing potential donors and local businesses and looking for fun experiments. We take turns teaching lessons and buying materials and we listen to and respect each other.”

The teenage teachers knew that funds would be needed to provide the type of program they had in mind. In August 2011, Walker and Rao submitted PJS’s application for a Pepsi Refresh grant. Their proposal was selected from hundreds of others to receive a $5,000 grant based on votes cast on their behalf.

“It amazed me how many people came up to me on the first day of December and asked if we won and told me they’d been voting all along,” said Raizada. “The Jesuit community gave us a huge amount of support. I don’t think we’d have gotten the grant without its help.”

The teens used the grant to set up a classroom at PAST&E with a projector and to purchase Vernier probes, lab notebooks for all the students, safety supplies and science kits.

The teens taught new topics each week, including oil spills, hydrophobic substances and Newton’s laws by building bottle rockets, water filters, electrical circuits and more. In the spring they helped the children craft an original science fair project that expanded on one of the topics.

“Parents, coaches and high school teachers delivered quite a turnout to see the students present their projects proudly,” Rao said. “This summer, PJS branched out for the first time. We taught a science camp for the kids at Beaverton Police Activities League. We taught 70 kids about non-Newtonian fluids, heat conductivity and pH, and they loved it!”

PJS’s first year of success just fueled the fire for expanding the project. Rao submitted an application to the Finding Fearless Fan Favorite program, which recognizes and rewards “fearless changemakers” around the country. More than 1,200 nominations were received and judged. Twenty were selected to receive grants ranging in value from $1,500 to $10,000 from the Case Foundation and the Goldhirsch Foundation, $25,000 in Microsoft software donations and gifts from REI.

The teens launched a “get out the vote” effort that landed Portland Junior Scientists in first place for both the $10,000 bonus grant from the Case Foundation and an REI adventure trip to Bryce Canyon National Park.

“This enables us to expand our program,” Walker said.

More students have joined PJS and Walker said the group is working to bring its science program to other Title 1 schools in Beaverton and Portland.

“We are focusing on getting certified as a nonprofit so we will be eligible for more grants so we can partner with more schools,” Walker said.

“It’s really exciting to see how happy kids get when we work with them,” Samir Sunjay said. “They say doing the experiments helps them understand what their teachers talk about in class.”

“I’ve never been part of something more incredible than our PJS team,” Rao said. “The past year has shown us what we can do together and we want to take it further. We are in touch with other Title 1 schools in Portland and we want to share our science program with more students.”

The Jesuit teens hope to encourage other schools to join PJS, which will allow them to take the program to even more schools.

“We have a model that can be used at other schools,” Walker said.

“We would love to form mentorships,” Rao said. “If there are people out there who can offer us suggestions or guidance on how to make this happen, we would love to work with them.”

Donations of equipment and cash are also welcome.

To contact PJS, visit

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