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South Bay Teens Offer Hands-On STEM For Kids With Special Needs

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) – This week's Bay Area Jefferson Award winners are a pair of South Bay teenagers introducing STEM to those who don't often get a chance to learn it.

KPIX 5 caught up with best friends Meghana Repaka and Nithila Poongovan during one of their lessons, sitting in a backyard, in front of a laptop and teaching via live videoconferencing.

The two high school seniors formed Young Inquisitive Minds in 2018 to bring hands-on STEM learning to people with developmental disabilities.

Jefferson Award Winners: Meghana Repaka, Nithila Poongovan
Meghana Repaka (left) and Nithila Poongovan. (CBS)

Meghana, who attends Lynbrook High School in San Jose, and Nithila, who attends Santa Clara High, wanted to inspire the same curiosity they had growing up as daughters of engineers.

"It's just this excitement that they get seeing this new thing because they have never had the opportunity before," said Repaka.

Young Inquisitive Minds serves under the umbrella of Via Services, a Santa Clara-based nonprofit serving people with disabilities.

Poongovan said she and Repaka have spent more than 850 hours teaching 350 children and adults at local recreation centers and high schools.

"It shows we're not very different," Poongovan said. "Although we might have different physical abilities in a sense, we all have curiosity for science."

And during the pandemic, the teens have transitioned to virtual classes, expanding to programs like Stanford's Kids with Dreams and a Florida nonprofit.

Young Inquisitive Minds participant Alexandra Reyes looks forward to the weekly lesson from making slime to sweet treats.

"My most favorite is the ice cream. I could eat it!" said Reyes.

David Grady is regional manager of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities.

He's helped connect Poongovan and Repaka to resources and opportunities to serve.

"I'm so impressed with these young ladies," he said.

He says Young Inquisitive Minds' inclusive program is a model for how special education students can grow in their social interactions and prepares them for future employment.

"The more we begin to can offer these supports at an earlier and earlier age, it begins to reduce stigma," Grady said.

"In a few years, they'll be adults, working in companies and they'll get resumes from people identified as neurodiverse and they'll be much better prepared to offer those job opportunities," said Grady.

Both teenagers say volunteering has changed them.

Repaka plans to study psychology.

"Self love and acceptance is what they've taught me," she said.

Poongovan plans to pursue robotics.

"I really want to build assistive technology for people with disabilities," she said.

So for creating an inclusive STEM program to people who are differently-abled this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Nithila Poongovan and Meghana Repaka.

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