Moorestown High School senior Maya Butani is not your average 17-year-old.
She is the founder and president of South Jersey STEM, a mentorship and hands-on program that provides science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational opportunities. Butani also does research on biomedical engineering at Rowan University.
“I love the intersection of medicine and research, and the idea that the research that you do could ultimately culminate in a treatment or a cure for something else,” she said. “You could benefit so many people and help so many people through research.”
Butani has participated in science fairs since she was in the sixth grade and appreciates an experiential approach to learning.
“Obviously, you learn science in school, but something is kind of lost when it’s boiled down to vocabulary and things to be memorized,” she noted. “Having (the) freedom of doing science outside of the classroom and getting to explore whatever you want really revealed a whole other aspect of the field to me.”
Butani started by co-teaching coding classes at the Moorestown library and eventually created the township’s STEM Girls program. She has guided activities that had an engineering focus with girls in grades four through six.
“It was (really) a great place to foster that curiosity, foster that engineering design, and then also (really) build this community of girls that would come back each time,” Butani explained. “And you could (kind of) see them growing an interest.”
When COVID hit, Butani started virtually mentoring people in science.
“With the virtual platform, that’s also a great opportunity to connect with people who are far away, (people) who are in different areas, and now, through virtual means, I can also make a difference to those people as well,” she noted.
After Butani reached out to people she met through science programs, she asked if they would be interested in joining South Jersey STEM. Butani was in the process of submitting a request for that club at Moorestown High School, but when COVID hit, the acceptance process was delayed.
Chapter leaders are also passionate about intersecting mentorship, participation in STEM and volunteering.
“The team itself is so diverse in terms of interests, backgrounds and what they want to do,” said Butani.
The South Jersey STEM newsletter compiles resources and provides up-to-date information for students who are interested in the group. It also incorporates mentorship and guidance.
“Through the newsletter, we can (actually) provide an indirect form of guidance by having high-schoolers and other professionals give advice to the audience members,” Butani said. “They can learn a lot about what they might be interested in doing (and) other opportunities that they can gain access to.”
STEM girls have created tie-dye bags and shirts, personalized drawing robots, magic drawings and ring-paper airplanes.
“We have quite a range of different subjects that are addressed through these lessons, but the main overarching connection between them is the idea that you get to make something, you get to take it home and you get to actually create it instead of listening to a lecture on this field of science,” said Butani.
She is now mentoring students at the high school to take over South Jersey STEM after she graduates.
“I’m looking forward to just (kind of) enjoying my senior year and I’m really enjoying the South Jersey STEM process,” she revealed. “It always comes down to the people, and the people on the team that I’m working with are amazing and they inspire me so much.”