Members of the STEM & Leaf Corps student organization didn’t let campus closing stop them from doing what they love – assisting other students.
It's obvious to say that things are not "normal" at the moment. With the COVID-19 pandemic closing nonessential businesses and college campuses around the nation, many were left wondering how they could be of use during these uncertain times.
One thing that is certain, students from all parts of Texas Tech University have risen to the occasion to do what they can. For the Honors College students in the STEM & Leaf Corps student organization, they continued to offer free tutoring to other Texas Tech and K-12 students learning from home.
The STEM & Leaf Corps began informally in the fall of 2016 when seven Honors students decided to volunteer at Lubbock High School, offering general and UIL-specific tutoring. Tingzeng Wang, a cell and molecular biology major from Lubbock set to graduate this May, was one of the seven founding members.
"We first started doing volunteer work in the fall of 2016, then became an official student organization in 2017," Wang said. "Oscar Wu was our first president. He led the formation of our group, then called 'Techsans Teach,' and we started recruiting people.
"We started off doing general tutoring at Lubbock High School. Anybody who wanted help, we would help them with homework, preparing for tests, whatever subjects they needed help with – math, science, history. Then, O.L. Slaton Middle School reached out to us. They had a need for folks to support their State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) Test preparation efforts, so we started sending tutors over there."
When Wang and the other STEM & Leaf Corps members realized the STAAR tutoring was interfering with students' class times, they shifted their focus to an after-school science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) enrichment program where they would have the middle-school students work on science projects.
"That was a major success for us, and I think for the students as well," Wang said. "We ended up having a waitlist for individuals to participate. We could only take 25 kids, but like 100 kids signed up."
And why wouldn't there be a waitlist when the organization offered fun activities?
"We made lava lamps," said Charlie Zhu, a microbiology major from San Antonio and current president of STEM & Leaf Corps. "We made toothpick bridges and catapults. It was a lot of fun! We showed the students a lot of engineering and physics concepts they might have never been exposed to, and they thought it was really cool."
Expanding the program
Once the STEM & Leaf Corps became a success at Lubbock High School and O.L. Slaton Middle School, other schools around the Lubbock area took notice. Programs have since been started at six other locations: Estacado High School, Hutchinson Middle School, Bayless Elementary School, Guadalupe-Sommerville Center, Parkway-Sommerville Center and Southcrest Christian School.
"We try our best to match the students' needs with our programs at each location," Zhu said. "Every year, we try to improve the curriculum and the lesson plans we have at each location. A lot of schools reach out to us as well. Smylie Wilson Middle School reached out to us needing help with the STAAR Test, and we started a STAAR review program using lesson plans that we made for English, math and writing. We go after school and we teach around 20 to 30 kids at a time with our members. We'd teach them how to read a certain passage or just learn how to simply add, and it's phenomenal how much they're improving."
To date, STEM & Leaf Corps has served more than 2,300 students at Texas Tech and across the Lubbock area. With so many students needing tutoring, it requires numerous volunteers to lead the charge.
"We have a lot of members that go to lots of different locations to volunteer because they just want to help out in all the places we serve," Zhu said. "Currently, we have around 40 to 50 active members volunteering with us on a weekly basis. A lot of our programs – such as Bayless Elementary School and Smylie Wilson – have a large number of kids, like 20 to 30 middle school or elementary school kids at a time. They can get pretty hectic, so we split the kids into groups of five or six students. The kids love it, and our members like being the teacher of their own small class."
Virtual tutoring during a pandemic
Just because the coronavirus pandemic shut down on-campus activities and in-class lectures for the remainder of the semester didn't mean the need vanished. Students still had projects and finals to complete.
With that, the STEM & Leaf Corps decided to do what they could. Wang and William Kariampuzha, a microbiology major from Tyler and current vice president of STEM & Leaf, reached out to Zhu with ideas on how to continue to help during this unusual time.
"Ting and William reached out to me with a plan of how to continue helping and supporting students in the community during these times, and they thought of such a great idea, which was to compile a list of tutors from different organizations that want to help out," Zhu said. "They reached out to so many different organizations, such as the Texas Tech chapter of the American Medical Student Association and the Raider Medical Screening Society, and they asked them if they want to be a tutor and potentially help kids in the community or help undergraduate students. A lot of Texas Tech students added their information and put down when they were available on the tutor list. The list is open to the public, and we try to send it out to multiple different locations."
They concentrated their efforts first toward recruiting Texas Tech students and then reached out to their home communities across Texas and other Texas colleges.
"We sent it across all of Texas Tech," Zhu said. "We sent it out to the biological sciences department, engineering departments and the College of Education just to see if any Texas Tech students initially needed help with any of their classes. Then, we tried to expand to a lot of different high schools and middle schools in our local areas through contacting the administrations.
"We told them about our tutor list that we compiled and Ting, along with other members, sent it to more than 70 different school districts, asking them to send out the tutor list and potentially help their students in any way possible. We reached out to other schools as well, like the University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College. We just tried to build a huge list so anyone could access it and ask someone on that list to see if they help."
When the group released their compiled list of tutors, they had a decent response from students. But with the semester now over and K-12 schools wrapping up their year, things have quieted down.
"Initially, when we first set it all out, we had a number of students asking us for help," Zhu said. "Nearing the end of the semester and the end of the year, it's been slowing down with smaller numbers of students using it in the community. But we have helped quite a few people with our endeavors, which is extremely gratifying."
Wang even made sure to make time for those he assisted.
"Just the other day I helped a student who's getting ready for her teaching certificate exam in mathematics and she needed some help with geometry," he said. "I told her I had some time when I'm eating dinner to just talk about math. So that's what we did. I was sneaking in bites of spaghetti while we were discussing things about circles, triangles and talking about what sine, cosine and tangent were. Afterward, I sent her some online resources from Khan Academy and a few other sites. She told me how happy she was with how I explained things, and it just made me feel really good."
Why they tutor
Wang's passion for tutoring others began when he was a student at Lubbock High School. He noticed there was a need that could be met and, once he came to Texas Tech, he knew he wanted to do something about it.
"When I was at Lubbock High, I felt that there was an absence of free academic support," Wang said. "Of course, teachers would stay after school and tutor their students, but a lot of times when kids needed help, there wasn't someone they could go to unless they paid money. There are quite a number of paid tutors, but for the kids whose parents can't afford such services, there was a need. So that was what made me, Oscar and all the other initial members want to start this organization.
"I think over the years, we've kind of realized that it's not just about tutoring, because that's only a small part of an individual's education, especially if we are just tutoring at the high-school level. By then, many kids have already set their minds on what they want to do. So, we wanted to reach out to middle and elementary students and hopefully get them into the academic position they should be in at a younger age. I think what Charlie's doing now is really fantastic because he's kind of been the vanguard for our movement into the middle school and elementary school levels."
Zhu has been involved in tutoring since high school and wanted to continue helping in that way during his time at Texas Tech.
"I was part of many tutoring organizations in high school," Zhu said. "I would individually tutor a lot of my friends' little brothers or little sisters, helping them out. I was part of the San Antonio Korean School, and every summer I would tutor middle school, elementary school and high school students, teaching them how to read, write and do well on their STAAR tests or the SATs. I helped out in a lot of different aspects, and I just really loved it.
"Everyone has experienced this one time or another if they've ever tutored someone: just seeing when the light bulb pops up, it gets to me. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference in someone else's life. It keeps me wanting to come back. So, I initially found STEM & Leaf Corps by just touring around a campus fair. It was the Honors Organization Fair, and I met Ting. He was the one who initially brought me in, and I started volunteering at Estacado High School during my first year, helping out in any way I could. It's honestly just a good way to give back."
Kariampuzha loved STEM & Leaf's somewhat nontraditional approach to tutoring and mentoring students.
"I worked at a Mathnasium in high school and when I joined Texas Tech, I saw the STEM & Leaf Corps," Kariampuzha said. "It seemed like they were doing fantastic work and giving back to the community. They're more focused on learning than educational structure. I really don't like educational structure and school in general, but I do like learning. I found that STEM & Leaf focused on the more engaging parts of learning – the fun aspects – and did not make it boring. I really loved tutoring. It was honestly the highlight of my week, going out there and helping those kids.
Though the STEM & Leaf Corps has only been an official student organization for three years, it has received many accolades for its work. The group won the Best Poster Award for Community Development and Public Service Projects at the 2019 American Medical Student Association's national conference, the "Get Involved" Award from the Volunteer Center of Lubbock and the Outstanding Contributions to the Greater Community Award through Texas Tech's 2019 Student Organization Awards.
This year, the group was named Texas Tech's 2020 Overall Student Organization of the Year.
"It feels amazing to receive that award," Zhu said. "We started all these programs with the goal just to help with education in Lubbock. After all these years, we just keep expanding and helping in any way we can, trying to get as many members on board, trying to get a lot of undergraduate students at Texas Tech to hear about us and see if they're interested in helping us achieve our goal. Honestly, it's wonderful to finally achieve such a great award because I know many of our officers and members have dedicated a lot of time and energy toward the organization, and it finally paid off.
"One of our officers, Elizabeth Koch, won the Student Leader of the Year award. She's been working with us for more than two years. She's been the campus coordinator at the Parkway-Sommerville Center, just helping out over there every single week with so many students, and it's just great."
Leaving behind a legacy
With Wang set to graduate this semester, he reflected on what it means to leave behind a tangible legacy at his soon-to-be alma mater.
"Everyone comes together in this organization," he said "We don't believe that doing good for the community should cost you an arm and a leg, which is why we don't charge dues. But also, I want to talk about our motto: innovation, education and service. The reason our motto is organized that way is because we believe that, to have effective service in education, we need to be innovative. Both Charlie and William have started up their own programs as part of STEM & Leaf, and so have many other members and officers. That's something I think sets us apart from other groups who also do good here on campus."
Instead of having a single program or one objective, Wang said the group wants anyone who is part of STEM & Leaf to adopt their principles in serving the community.
"We want them to educate and teach to whatever needs the community has but also pursue whatever kind of service-oriented idea they have as an individual," he said. "For example, William started a mathematical linguistics research group at Lubbock High School. He thought it would be a really great idea if we could have college undergraduates leading research groups composed of high schoolers. That way, they could have earlier access to the research experience and also relate more to the college mentor. Charlie started our elementary program over at Bayless, so that was our initial step into working with elementary students."
Since STEM & Leaf doesn't charge dues, many of the officers put in their own money to help the organization. It also recently reached 501(c)(3) nonprofit status thanks to Kariampuzha's efforts. In this capacity, the STEM & Leaf Corps has truly become a platform for service, Kariampuzha said.
"One thing that really got to me about STEM & Leaf Corps was that everything is from the heart," Zhu said. "We recently just became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit because William, who was our treasurer, applied for that. That has helped us quite a bit in receiving funds. But a lot of these officers, when I initially joined, they put in hundreds of dollars in buying materials, like oil for lava lamp experiments, toothpicks and marshmallows for like 20 to 30 kids at a time, and I just thought that was remarkable. These kids are having so much fun, and these members are so dedicated to providing that service that they're willing to put in their own money, their own time and their own dedication to do so.
"And I looked up to one member, Ting. So, I try to follow in his footsteps and try to do my best as president now to see what we can do to make a bigger impact and help out."