Branch Out

Breathe life into education, breach barriers to innovation.

Photo of Shreya Parjan
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Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Website: Facebook: @branchoutedu

Date Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)

1. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project? NOTE: All applications must include a 1 minute video that answers: “I am stepping up to make change because..."

“I wish we had something like this when I was growing up.” I will never forget when a parent helplessly confessed this to me while we discussed one of Branch Out's earliest programs at a small library in East San Jose. I experienced the impact of educational inequality first hand when I briefly attended school in the Silicon Valley after moving from Portland, Oregon. I was far behind my classmates because I lacked long-term, unrestricted access to the region’s wealth of opportunity. But most startling to me was that inequality did not even spare neighborhoods just miles away from these wealthy communities. This was when I realized the extent of educational inequality across the United States. I founded Branch Out because no student deserves to feel helpless because of factors and barriers out of their control. In my work, every student is a changemaker.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Students at underserved schools face barriers to making the change they need most. PREPARATION Schools often lack the advising or extracurricular support for students to become skilled voices for community change. INSTABILITY Existing programs are often vulnerable and short-term solutions to a pervasive issue. VOICELESSNESS Underserved areas are forced to compete to speak their needs, silencing student voices while perpetuating inequality.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Branch Out helps students bring change to their communities and offers them the resources to actualize that change. Our model is simple, sustainable, and supports underserved communities by putting their perspectives first: EMPATHIZE Before implementing any program, curriculum, or service, we conduct a needs assessment of the community we plan to serve. We honor the importance of including a network of teachers, administrators, and local partners to create community-appropriate resources, not quick fixes. EMPOWER Next, we determine what is most effective, whether helping teachers strengthen curricula, improving student outcomes with new technology, or offering social innovation programs, workshops, and mentoring. Placing underserved communities at the center of our mission means that we listen when they speak and honor the power of the youth perspective, one that's often neglected in debates surrounding reform. Students then think critically about issues they're eager to address and innovate with a community to serve in mind. EXTEND Finally, we help students and educators form local chapters and partnerships to join our growing network of community-centered innovation.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

A school district in California's Central Valley reached out to us with a simple request: how can they get elementary schoolers caring about water conservation after a severe drought? We first examined existing curriculum on water resource management and found that 1) these programs were not unique to the community or tackling Next Generation Science Standards and 2) the county water district did not educate students about local water issues. Reaching out to a water district in the Silicon Valley, we learned what made their educational programs a success. We then developed a water reclamation challenge combining NGSS engineering standards, design thinking, and discussion about local water management policy. It was piloted in a 5th grade class and catalyzed the district’s environmental action campaign. We are now lobbying for the local water district to offer students more resources.

5. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

We are not the solution to a problem or the sole voice for change. Simply, Branch Out is a platform elevating existing community voices instead of speaking over them. We know community members can solve community problems if they can connect experience and identity to innovation. We revitalize education in marginalized areas by helping the very people it impacts most, students, engage with interdisciplinary networks spanning STEAM, policy, and activism to affect the change they wish to see. We are born from public schools, for public schools. We are multifaceted because education is too.

6. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

All of our programs are free of cost. In 2014, we partnered with the Girls STEAM Institute to offer the Astra STEAM Summit, a two-day scholarship competition for girls ages 12-17 to receive mentorship from industry leaders and start social enterprises. Four additional summits have been held, awarding over $100k in scholarships. Our alumni have gone on to schools like MIT, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon. In 2016, we launched urban camps, make-a-thons, and summits teaching low-income students K-12 everything from public policy to rocketry. By 2017, our rural education campaigns and curricular consulting service were bringing innovation directly into schools with apps improving counseling and new teaching tools and trainings. We have served over 200 students and now work with them to develop sustainable, community-centric programs and chapters with local public and private sector partners.

7. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

We began as two girls working out of a small library. Our growing movement of grassroots education reform is building: HIGHER ED PIPELINES. We are working with colleges in CA, OR, and MA on how our programs can identify and prepare promising candidates that traditional admissions may overlook. CHAPTERS. With hundreds of program alumni, we're training students to build a sustainable network of college and high school chapters bringing community-oriented change to where they see need around them. OUTREACH WITH IMPACT. Leading entrepreneurs want to develop more innovation challenges and global scholarship programs with us. We're also creating civic engagement curricula to combat polarization with effective discourse and advocacy.

8. Future Support: What are the resources needed to make your vision a reality?

You’ve given us the Changemaker Challenge, we’ll take our innovative curriculum and, together, build more changemaking communities. We want to partner with you, T-Mobile & Ashoka, to make challenges like this accessible to students with the most to gain: those who feel most powerless in today’s classrooms. Our vision is one where schools don’t obstruct budding changemakers and help children challenge inequality rather than succumb to it. Funding us funds grants for chapters building great programs, brings portable innovation stations to resource-poor schools, and helps us add more diversity of perspective and background in our core team. Mentoring us mentors our youth network and keeps Branch Out not only sustainable, but scalable.

9. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations less than $100
  • Donations between $100-$1k
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

10. Ripple Effect: Please share some ideas of how you could partner with other changemakers or involve other young people as leaders in making a difference.

Young people are at the center of all of our work because we see them as the center of education. Our entire program is run by students not only for students, but for the communities that we are a part of because Branch Out is a diverse initiative that isn’t confined to a single subject, idea, or identity. This challenge has already given us access to an incredible network of innovators addressing issues that impact themselves or those around them. So, we want to form a youth advisory network of distinguished changemakers under Branch Out. We believe that everyone who enters this challenge is already a changemaker and are reaching out to our fellow applicants to build this network. Some have even expressed interest in bringing Branch Out to their schools, but our goal is also to support their own endeavors and encourage them to speak out about their journey as student innovators. Together, we will amplify the voices of changemakers on the rise, increase awareness of opportunities like this, and create them where they do not exist.

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Social media


Join the conversation:

Photo of Diane McClelland


The Branch Out program you developed mirrors the Girls S.T.E.A.M. Institute's goals to provide education and mentoring to young girls in low income and rural areas. We also importantly work with their parents to inform them of the tremendous opportunities in S.T.EA.M. industries. We look forward to our growing partnership with Branch Out.

Photo of Shreya Parjan

Precisely! A huge part of what we do is building a network for students to tap into, be it through local businesses and governments or educators. Equipping parents with the skills to support their students is another essential component of this mission.

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