What if youth could playfully create and lead experimental social initiatives that have a broad impact?

Photo of Benyam Alemu
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

As a student-educator and tutor representing a UC San Diego Education Studies program, I shadowed and observed the lessons and the students’ social interactions. At the conclusion of the brief on-board lesson, I was given permission to guide their activities. Confidently, I scanned the room and saw a particularly bored student in basketball shorts. I approached him with a question: I asked him to explain the relevance of slopes.He responded to my youthful college smile and shrug with a sense of deference, coolness and immediate attention. As we began to discuss the possible answers to my questions, I instantly felt that we shared an energy and sense of connection; he found his ‘human’ and relatable big brother role model. I asked his table of friends once more what the usefulness of the slope concept was in daily life and why they are learning it. This time I added a purposeful flex of my wrist and extended my arm outward in a 45 degree angle with a delicate repetition of synchronous finger extensions. An artistic representation of relevant mathematics and physics in action. After repeating the motion twice, a smile extended on his face as he realized it was a basketball shooting motion. “Basketball is life,” he claimed. Every curriculum and structural design decision went back to the following principles: How can we get students to become personally engaged in STEM material? Why should students make a socially relevant connection with the material?

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

The most active site of our mentorship programs is San Diego, CA. The Bay Area group led by UC Berkeley students is beginning in Fall 2016 as will similar SENDforC programs by UC Davis students in Fall 2016.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

In particular, underrepresented students are especially discouraged from pursuing advanced science and engineering fields due to a lack of clear learning purpose, approachable role models and opportunities to seek advice and bring content to life. These are issues prevalent not only in marginalized and underserved communities but also in all social arenas. If students can find purpose and meaning in their education, they will excel academically and discover they are capable of harvesting tremendous innovation. This must be done in a student-driven way to bring a sense of immediacy and awareness; a sense of “here and now”: a genuine desire and belief they can foster an impact to society today. We as a community of educators need to make education more ‘actionable’!

We have a long way to get to reach our aforementioned mission on a global scale. I hope to use academic research as the engine to reinvent STEM education, youth leadership and social entrepreneurship. These, among other declarations, would set the tenets of an ambitious experiment-in-action. The startup program is currently deployed across California to construct a more powerful action-oriented STEM social entrepreneurship platform for students to blend learning inside and outside the classroom to solve urgent and tangible problems in their community. This is known as the Support, Encourage and Develop for Children (SENDforC) Initiative: an award-winning student-created, student-initiated and student-driven call to action for multidisciplinary leadership to “contribute locally, impact globally”. We believe exposing students to the rigors of academic research, social entrepreneurship and community development can serve as a playful way to co-create social enterprises between K-12 students and their undergraduate peers.

Students from partnership high schools are able to select an individualized multidisciplinary program of their choice: Hard Sciences, Engineering or Computer Science tracks. Each individualized program offers its own distinct educational pedagogy, completely different vision and multidisciplinary curricula to choose. With open-access, students are able to enroll in a 730-day social entrepreneurship program regardless of their resumes or transcripts. Unlike traditional educational models, individual students are given a choice to decide what they do or do not want to study. Based on the extensive diversity from our University Mentors serving as instructors and researchers, students can also pursue a very specific niche as well as broad interests, including emerging fields (in a changing world) they may not otherwise be exposed to. Some include Computational Psycholinguistics, NanoMedicine, Quantitative Biology and others nested in the tracks of over thirty potential (and growing number of) research topics the exceptional undergraduate students have specialized their research in.

Many of the aspects that make the organization unique are placed in the Unique Value Proposition header. We will explain that further then and the power of its student-driven flexibility there. A bold aspect of our experiment-in-action was our decision to set the rigor level as exceptionally high (not only challenging for high school students but rigorous for our undergraduate mentors). Each ‘track’ or curriculum has its own unique focus, but many case-studies and workshops were taken from conceptual modifications from actual laboratory edge-cases of the (undergraduate) University Mentors own experiments. For example, our prior lessons included understanding the molecular machinery of DNA to troubleshoot a planned error of biochemical techniques and understanding the computational thinking and how to optimize algorithms to save time and energy. Now, how would we integrate them together? These underlying concepts are not abstract for students, the nuances of complex academic research and methodical planning and troubleshooting teaches remarkable discipline, collaboration and organizational skills. It was a deliberate emphasis to set the bar on the curricula high and give considerable freedom for the program to be student-driven, student-created and student-oriented.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Within ordinary high school classrooms, SENDforC University Mentors bring research and community development programs to selected partnership schools. In a traditional setting, these goals of analytical research and deliberation are not usually realized because they are prohibitively expensive to pursue, can take considerable class time or additional outside of class time for educators, and are often presented in a too abstract or non-relatable way for students. SENDforC works with school administrators, parents, educators and students to design tailored programs for each school.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Over the last year, UC San Diego students set the curriculum, proposed research studies, performed grant-writing, successfully completed several ambitious projects and mentored 15 high school students. This program was entirely student-driven, student-created and student-oriented. The undergraduate students have pushed the envelope and brought K-12 students they mentor underneath their wings as they co-create initiatives. Now, future program sites are being prepared by UC Berkeley and UC Davis undergraduate students. Our program was rated by our inaugural students 9.2/10 and our undergraduate mentors earned honors from Ford, NSF, AAMC, Jacobs School of Engineering as they founded 3 501(c)3 or LLC charitable groups as SENDforC projects.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1k - $10k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Seeking donors and grants using our fiscal status is one of many strategies we are pursuing for our project. University Departments and their research grant ‘impact’ provisions, individual donations and awards from foundations have funded this product. CISCO, Target, Qualcomm, and other corporate sponsors have expressed interest in volunteerism and funding. We may also monetize the success of our separate undergraduate research projects.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Our program is unique in the fact that it is not a research internship, high school club, outreach initiative, single subject tutoring/mentoring program, traditional academic course, competition or recreational activity -- but a mixture of these elements. By being able to work with students, communities and schools for two years (or more) at each site, we have been able to form lasting connections as community influencers and consistent ‘big brother and big sister’ role models for our students. Not bound by educational standards, flexibility.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The most profound potential effect of SENDforC is not its emphasis on academic research, but its cognitive role in challenging high school students and giving them a voice and space to create social innovations in their communities. We aim to give students the confidence that can learn advanced confidence while providing the encouragement for them to learn about, build and spread awareness of urgent causes they choose to advocate for. We aim to not only open their horizons with our mentors but provide a safe space for social and emotional learning.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Facebook

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 0%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 33.3%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 66.7%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 33.3%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 33.3%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 33.3%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 33.3%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 33.3%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 33.3%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 0%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 33.3%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 66.7%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 0%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 100%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 0%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Lacy Stephens

Hi Benyam, 
The "student led" approach here seems very impactful and empowering for young people. Could you clarify your reach to younger children (ages 0-12)? Is the aim to expand from the pilot focused on high school age students to younger students? Congratulations on a well crafted submission and innovative project. 

Photo of Benyam Alemu

Hello Lacy! Thank you for the kind words. We started our mentorship program with high school students (primarily 10th and 11th graders) but have kept in mind possible K-12 further curriculum and tracks at other sites. Two of the next student chapters are considering mentoring middle school students but we need to make a lot of changes in making a more straightforward, slower paced curriculum for younger students. I think it would be a challenge.

One of the ideas that we are hoping to launch next year is to leverage the high school students as mentors themselves! Instead of an undergraduate mentor teaching say programming, the 20 students they have mentored for the prior year can expose the basic concepts to their classmates or younger (such as 10-15 middle school students via a student club or afterschool tutoring program). Although it would not be as rigorous and effective as an older university student or researcher as an instructor, being able to go from reaching 20 students in a classroom leads to a chain of sustained engagement (20 x 10-15 students or 200-300 students exposed to basic concepts or tools/syntax/rules and potentially excited by a new field) which is just one mentor to mentee  to impact relationship.