A FAST track for local teens

Stanford graduate students spark a passion for science careers

For some students at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, science may not feel like a calling. But a program developed and led by Stanford graduate students is showing high schoolers that science can be more rewarding than they imagined — so engaging, in fact, they’ll regularly show up on Saturdays to ask questions, design experiments and learn from mentors.

Sandra Bunag of James Lick High School demonstrates a glove designed to help translate sign language into English. 
Steve Fisch

The Saturday program is the Future Advancers of Science and Technology, or FAST. Cooper Galvin, a graduate student in biophysics at Stanford, and four of his classmates — Andrew Kennard, Athena Ierokomos, Carlos Hernández and Derek Huang — started the program in 2015, hoping to create an environment in which students would be encouraged to pursue a passion project in science, technology or engineering through yearlong mentorship, Galvin said. 

“Interesting and impactful science and engineering can be done by anyone, anywhere,” Galvin said. “All a scientist or engineer needs is curiosity or a drive to make things better, mentorship or some system of accountability, and space to do the work.”

Katie Liu, the current FAST president, said witnessing teens begin to understand the scientific process and become confident in their own ideas is one of the most satisfying elements of being a mentor. 

“It’s inspiring to me as a scientist when I get really discouraged about my own research and I see how persistent they are,” Liu said. “I see the passion in students who definitely have a lot of other things going on in their family lives, and they still decide that FAST is important enough for them to keep showing up.”

Saturday science sessions

FAST participants and mentors meet for five hours on alternating Saturday afternoons during the school year. The program culminates in the opportunity for students to enter their projects in a regional science fair and present their work at a Stanford symposium.

The program began with about a dozen Stanford volunteers and 45 high school students, and has since expanded into a second location — James Lick High School, also in San Jose. It now has more than 100 high school participants and over 70 Stanford graduate student mentors. 

Coaching from FAST mentors helps students stick with science after high school and includes support for applying to colleges, receiving financial aid, and learning about ethics and coding.

Graduate student Cooper Galvin listens to a presentation at a poster session on the Stanford campus for high school students who participated in the FAST program. Galvin helped create the program.
Steve Fisch

“They helped me apply to colleges and tried to help me find internships or summer programs to keep me involved in science,” said Brianna Rivera, a former participant in the program who was later accepted into the bioengineering program at Boston University. 

Rivera said FAST helped her stay on track academically, while coaching from mentors and the scientific process both taught her resilience.

“I didn’t know that most of the time in science, research is like 99% failure,” Rivera said. “And now, I think that’s kind of what makes science so interesting for me. The fact that it is a trial-and-error process.”

Galvin said having a space for ambitious effort and for spectacular failure is essential in learning, and mentors at any level can play a part in making that happen. 

“We need safe opportunities to fail and be celebrated for trying really hard,” Galvin said. “The potential of graduate students and all sorts of professional scientists to inspire the public to engage in science, follow curiosities, get messy — no matter age, race, socioeconomic status — is sorely untapped because many feel that is the job of professors and ‘professional’ educators.”

In February, Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, hosted a lunch for the FAST founders and several of its graduate student leaders. “I’m proud of them for shaping the next generation of thinkers and thankful for their strong dedication to our community,” Minor said.

Galvin and Liu are sharing their training materials and guidance with other Stanford student organizations. Their team has also begun meeting with potential leaders throughout the Bay Area who want to start their own chapters of FAST or incorporate the lessons FAST has learned in its four years of operations and monitoring student progress. 

They plan to expand the academic scope of FAST into social sciences, including psychology and sociology, and into the arts. They’re also considering how to make FAST’s learning environment more inclusive of students from immigrant backgrounds.