Making STEM Accessible in the Asia-Pacific with the Innovation Circuit

GEMS Innovation Week by Innovation Circuit Team
Source: Sam Poder

The International Baccalaureate (IB) and Ashoka partnered to develop a unique opportunity for Middle Years Program (MYP) students, ages 14-17 in IB schools worldwide to propose and scale their ideas for social change. Together, the IB and Ashoka believe that in a world that is constantly in flux, where rapid change is the norm, all young people need to grow up practising changemaking.  

Below is an interview with one such team based in Singapore. The Innovation Circuit is running a circuit of accessible STEM events in schools and communities across Singapore and the Asia-Pacific. 

For us, a changemaker is someone who uses their passion to make the world a better place - Innovation Circuit Team 

Team Members: Arsh (India, 16), Neil (India, 16), Edwin (Malaysia, 15), Diego Paniagua (Mexico, 16) & Sam (Australia, 17) 

Can you tell us a little about your project and what inspired you to create it?

Sam: The goal of The Innovation Circuit is to run a series of accessible STEM events in schools and communities across Singapore and Asia Pacific (APAC). Our events encourage beginners to get involved with STEM and show them how enjoyable it can be.

The Innovation Circuit originated from an event we ran during our time in the Student Council called Innovation Week. We created a week-long event at our school with workshops/activities for students as well as an evening hackathon and a pitching competition similar to Dragon's Den. We were inspired to start the initiative after noticing a false paradigm around the school. Many students thought that STEM fields were only for incredibly smart students, this drove down participation in the field and discouraged students without experience in the field. We wanted to change that.

To do so, we provided students with accessible, hands-on and enjoyable experiences with STEM that showed them that they could do it. For example, in all of our programming workshops we made sure there was a tangible outcome from the event such as a participant now having a personal website or having made a song.

After two years of running Innovation Weeks in our school, we felt that we could do more. We applied to the MYP Innovators program to bring Innovation Week to more students. To achieve this, we created a program to support Innovation Weeks in other schools and started running Innovation Week inspired events for the public.

What have you been able to accomplish with your project by being an MYP Innovator?

Arsh: Through the MYP Innovators program, we’ve launched five events for students both in Singapore & the APAC region. The program has supported us financially, provided us with mentorship and connected our team with like-minded students who are incredibly passionate about their interests and value others’ endeavours.

A highlight of our time as MYP Innovators was organising the Innovation Challenge, which brought together over 350 young entrepreneurs from the APAC region to develop solutions to local and global issues. The event gave young changemakers a stage to showcase their creativity and to grow as innovators. Participants received extensive feedback from our experienced judges to help them improve their projects. Additionally, the challenge provided a select group of teams with funding to develop their ideas further. Participants pitched a wide range of solutions, from revolutionary new language learning techniques to inventive therapy solutions for neurodivergent youth. We were incredibly inspired by the participants’ creativity and passion when taking on the challenge.

Another magical moment of our journey was partnering with the American nonprofit CodeDay to bring the first-ever CodeDay to Singapore, which also happened to be the first in Asia. CodeDay Singapore brought together 40+ artists, coders and musicians to create apps and games. Some favourites included WordleBomb, a twist on the viral Wordle game, and QRBattle, a game in which you scanned another player’s QR code to “battle them”. CodeDay Singapore took place in a disco turned retro-themed cinema that we converted into a bustling makerspace.

As MYP Innovators, we’ve expanded Innovation Week into three more schools. Being able to support new events for different sets of students has been a fulfilling experience. The smiles when students see STEM used to have fun for the first time are unforgettable.

Lastly, with the support of The Ashoka Foundation & the IB, we’ve established a sustainable model of funding our project as it moves beyond its first year of operations. Through corporate sponsorships, we’ll be able to ensure that the project lives on in years to come. For those interested, we’ve committed to open-sourcing our finances here.

What key challenges or obstacles did you face when starting up your project?

Diego: The biggest obstacle was (and still is) the COVID-19 pandemic because Singapore implemented a range of restrictions to reduce its impact. The first edition of Innovation Week took place during the first week of the restrictions in early 2020. It was an uncertain time with measures changing daily, meaning that we had to be on our feet and ready to adapt. When we joined the MYP Innovators Program, there were still extensive restrictions on events. We had to think outside the box to continue creating an impact whilst keeping the community safe.

Another challenge we faced was that discussions with different school administrations varied wildly in complexity. We found that some schools were more demanding than others. We had to learn how to properly pitch our idea and adapt the event to meet a range of school’s requirements whilst staying true to our values.

What are your plans for your project now that you’ve completed your time as an MYP Innovator?

Edwin: Following our time in the MYP Innovators Program, we plan to continue running accessible STEM events across Singapore & APAC and to expand our programs to larger groups of students. The planning for these events has already begun; we’re currently organising a Game Jam and new technology events in schools across Singapore. By continuously learning from our previous events, we’re always building on and improving our program to spread the wonders of STEM and make every event better than the last!

What advice do you have for future MYP Innovators?

Neil: Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and passions as yourself. Make yourself comfortable working with others. This will allow you to easily bounce ideas off of each other and continue to inquire upon how you could reach a certain objective. For example, we’d try our best to catch-up as a team regularly for collaborative brainstorming sessions and team syncs. The Innovation Circuit was certainly no different as our teamwork allowed us to host a myriad of events throughout the APAC region. Additionally, you have to be a risk-taker and network with others that share the same interests. This will not only allow you to understand others’ points of view and ask for help where needed, but would also allow you to reflect on what you can do differently with your own ideas.

Lastly, it’s important to keep track of your finances as you scale. We used Hack Club Bank to create a shared bank account with debit cards. The service also handled invoices, donations and our nonprofit taxes filings for us.

What does being a ‘changemaker’ mean to you? Why does it matter?

Sam: For us, a changemaker is someone who uses their passion to make the world a better place. Changemakers identify authentic problems and take action to help solve them.

We think it’s important for young people to get involved in solving the issues facing us as many of the discussions will directly affect their future and they can bring a unique perspective to the table. One of the greatest things about running the Innovation Challenge was seeing all the creative solutions the participants came up with. Through the challenge, we were able to empower them to make those ideas a reality which was very rewarding. There’s no doubt we’re facing countless problems, but the 21st Century has also opened up an abundance of opportunities for young people like never before. So let’s get out there and take them!

Find out more about the Innovation Circuit here. Dr Siva Kumari MYP Student Innovators’ Grant is an opportunity for MYP students to build vital skills to become the socially conscious leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs the world needs today. Learn more about the program here.