IN 2020, when many students across the world were attending classes from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a grade 11 student in Dubai chose to support those with no access to remote learning. Today, her initiative to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and nurture love for biology — Biology for Better — is a fiscally sponsored nonprofit organisation with 20 global chapters, 200 members and a seven-member board of students working tirelessly for the cause.
Meet Riya Manas Sharma, a grade 11 student in GEMS Modern Academy and the founder and CEO of Biology for Better (BFB), who is making a difference to the lives of poor children with no access to education during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was in the summer of 2020 that Riya read a Unicef report that said at least a third of the world’s schoolchildren were unable to access remote learning during school closures, or even education, she told Gulf News in an interview.
Research sparks passion
While doing research for one of her Model United Nations conferences in August, she read that millions of students were out of school worldwide. She found it very disheartening and that motivated her to do whatever she could to help those students in any way possible. “Quickly diving in head-first was the need of the hour,” said the 16-year-old. It only took a couple of days for Riya to start planning and put the ideas together about how she would want the basic structure of an organisation, guided by the sole objective to educate and empower the underprivileged children by providing easier access to STEM education.
Passionate about biology and community service, Riya hoped to combine the two through the ‘Biology for Better’ (BFB) initiative. “I first spoke to my parents, who were not only fully supportive but helped me fine-tune my plan. Due to my love for biology, I wanted to incorporate some elements of that as well, which is why our ancillary aim was to help inculcate a love for biology amongst the youth.”
Also, being a sustainability ambassador for the Youth4Sustainability programme by Masdar on Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG-4 is ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education), Riya, who scored 98 per cent in her class 10 exam of Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) examinations in July, wanted to blend her passion for biology and education into the initiative.
As part of a mentoring activity, she was already teaching ballet to children and had initiated a French mentoring programme in her school. “Due to the amazing support received for the initiatives there, I was able to plan and organise how our educational aids programme would work, particularly during the pandemic situation.”
Additionally, other school activities such as the ecological magazine and regular webinars helped her plan magazines and webinars along similar lines. “So, it came from past exposures since I truly wanted BFB to reach out to as many people as possible in as many ways across and in as many geographies. The pandemic has proved that online platforms barely demand high resource commitments. If one has the passion, the resources come in easily,” the youngster said, sharing what she learned from her experience.
How did the project take off?
Initially, she said, the ideas were shared via online student platforms. “It was a delight to see the large number of students who were interested in this unique initiative. Then a form to be filled in was uploaded and based on the responses and further discussions, the board members were finalised. All the board members had the same amount of belief in our mission and would be just as dedicated and passionate to our common goal.”
Currently the board consists of members across continents: Cheryl Tang is the COO from San Ramon, United States, Nathan Nguyen is director of technology from Brisbane, Australia, Glenn Carvalho is the director of logistics from Dubai, UAE, Angel is director of outreach from New York, US, Cavelle Simpson is editor-in-chief from Shirley, US, Sajia Athai is director of marketing from New York, US, and Esther Kear is director of Education from Beijing, China.
How were the sponsors roped in?
“We came across our sponsors after speaking to and collaborating with some other student initiatives that are dedicated to the same goal. We try to frequently collaborate with them since we believe it is best to support and uplift each other the best way we can as although we may operate based on different niches or structures, we are working towards a common goal.”
BFB’s sponsor is an organisation called Hack+, a nonprofit that helps students launch unique ventures. “They are supporting us by providing us with fantastic resources such as a professional online events platform (which we used for our webinar) and organisation management software.
Being sponsored by Hack+ means that their 501 (c) (3) non-profit status, which is the status for a legally registered non-profit organisation in the US, gets extended to us due to a contract we signed with them. This works since several of our global chapters are in the US such as BFB New York, BFB Dearborn and BFB North California.”
How were other like-minded students for global chapters connected?
“After the board was finalised, we all brainstormed ideas on what we could do and how we could add more to the plan, which is where the idea for a podcast came in, where we speak with biologists to learn more about their specific fields.”
Using other online student platforms, the BFB website, and its social media handles and by word of mouth, students from across the world became part of the project.
How do students run the campaign?
“After interviewing students that sign up and are interested in the project, we send them our handbook and other promotional resources to form a local chapter. After it is formed, they gain access to our Slack, which we use as our main communication platform and they get monthly tasks for the creation of STEM worksheets or videos or writing for the magazine and or blog. Some of them also choose to have their own social media accounts to help promote our aim.”
“The volunteers from our various chapters prepare worksheets and videos and we send them to the targeted children via collaborations with nonprofits that work on site with rural schools.”
As of now, the BFB team is not directly interacting with the students.
“However, we do receive monthly feedback from our partners regarding how the children have benefitted from our educational aids. We are currently setting up a programme with them for children to come into specific local computer labs for direct online sessions. We had our first session last week with students in Karnataka in India.”
How does the partnership work in India and Africa?
“We have non-profit partnerships with EVidyaloka and Sukrupa in India and Village Schools, Africa. That helps us in providing direct educational aid to children living in rural areas in India and Africa. They let us know where exactly they need help, with which topics for any particular grade and then we pass those information to the volunteers from our chapters who then prepare the necessary material after additional guidance from us.”
Riya added: “Usually, each chapter gets one or two topics each month in addition to writing articles for the magazine and blog, attending webinars, the podcast, etc. We also have several meetings with our partners, discussing the ways in which we can make our resources better and we then relay this to our volunteers. We are currently discussing and have had meetings with nonprofits, even rural schools, regarding virtual classes. However, the limited availability of internet connection and screens in these schools poses a hindrance.”
How can other students/schools be part of the initiative?
“We’d highly encourage other students to be a part of this initiative by forming a Biology for Better chapter or club in their own school. By creating a chapter, they would be providing educational aids to children in rural schools, writing articles and blog posts on the latest biological research, tuning into our podcast and most importantly, being a part of a community of students from all around the world that are just as passionate as they are.”
“Usually, a student would have to fill in an application form, after which we interview them to see whether they would be a good fit for the position, following which they receive our chapter handbook, promotional material and other necessary details to form a chapter.
What is the future for BFB?
“Currently, Biology for Better has about 20 global chapters set up all around the world in places like New York, Beijing, Brisbane, Bangalore and Manchester and has about 200 like-minded students who are passionate for the cause and growing daily. In the future, we would definitely like to expand to even more places and open up more chapters, strengthening our community,” Riya said.
“We plan to keep continuing our social media campaigns and collaborations to reach more people and spread our goal, in line with UN SDG 4. We will continue to have faith that these small steps taken by the youth may one day lead to a huge change,” she added.