Puja Shankar
Puja Shankar and a school mascot accepting the first-place trophy at a regional Science Olympiad tournament.
Puja Shankar
Puja Shankar and a school mascot accepting the first-place trophy at a regional Science Olympiad tournament.

“Voices of IBM Volunteers” is part of the All Things STEM program to reach young people through STEM-related volunteering. Watch the video

The drive to close the global skills gap is among IBM’s most important initiatives. All Things STEM calls on IBM volunteers to promote activities that enable digital literacy with young people, introduce them to hands-on problem solving, and sparks their interest in STEM learning—using resources and support on the IBM Volunteers web site.

In the series, IBM volunteers share their passion and perspective, in their own words, on what it means to be a volunteer and the positive impact we can all have on society.

IBM volunteer: Puja Shankar, IBM security specialist

Daring to dream

I believe dreams can come true if you believe in them, work hard with honesty and dedication. That’s what recently happened to me and a team of students.

Our family had moved from New York to North Carolina in 2017, and my son was missing his old school, where our family had been involved in the Science Olympiad for eight years.

We discovered that the Science Olympiad was not very active at his new school, Triangle Math and Science Academy (TMSA) in Cary, North Carolina. However, being a “Science Olympiad Family,” we thought we could bring the magic of SciOly to the community.

I’ve been a parent volunteer for Science Olympiad since 2011. I’ve seen the students put in hours to prepare for their events and witnessed the jubilations and heartbreak when they either won medals or missed out by one point. I saw they were also forming life-long friendships.

I got so inspired that I started helping every year, and though every year was a learning exercise it meant when we arrived at TMSA I had good experience with what’s involved in coaching a SciOly Club.

A team for STEM

In 2017, we dared to dream and connected with the school administration at TMSA and got their support to start the Science Olympiad Club.

I still remember the first interest meeting at school. Only eight or nine kids showed up. We started the TMSA SciOly club with them.

According to the Science Olympiad website, clubs “function like a football or soccer team, requiring preparation, commitment, coaching and practice throughout the year,” to participate in tournaments across a variety of events in different STEM skill sets.

We started to meet twice a week, faced many challenges, and overcame them one by one. By November, by word of mouth and publicity in the school, the team grew to 20 participants. I saw the excitement in kids to work hard, learn and give their best.

Science Olympiad tournaments are designed for students to apply and display a wide variety of talents, from design and prototyping to technical writing to chemistry lab skills. Some kids only want to do the study events or the model-building event, while others want to do both.

At the tournaments, a team of 18 students pairs up to tackle 23 events which are generally spaced across six 50-minute blocks on a Saturday.

Our team performed well at its first tournament. It was a new experience for them. We placed 9th among 30 schools; a great achievement for the team. I was so proud of them. I could not sleep that night. I dared to dream with eyes open. I saw potential in the team and believed that we could go to the national tournament in 2020 to be held at NC State University—only about 25 minutes away from our school.

I shared my optimism and plan with the dean of TMSA, calling my dream: TMSA@NCSU2020. He replied with his full support!

Let the games begin

We started the 2018 season with lessons learned and improved our strategy. I talked to the team about going to Nationals and they laughed saying it was impossible.

I told them the word “impossible” is not in my dictionary. We have the destination, I know the path, and I asked to believe in themselves and to embark on the journey with me. I wasn’t promising success, but I was promising lots of learning opportunities and memories for life.

Some believed, some stayed quiet.

We met every Saturday from 9AM to 3PM. Kids stronger in study events started to work on their events, kids stronger in build events started to build their models. We held each other's hand and kept working hard.

For the first time, I took the team to an Invitational competition at Duke University.

It was a very tough competition. We didn’t earn any medals, though we missed a few by just two or three places.

However, as a team we realized our mistakes. A good sportsman refines their game after a defeat. We did the same. We had 21 days until the Regional competition and the team went all in to make improvements.

We started to put in more hours, we corrected our mistakes in study and build events. We went through some heartbreaking debacles too.

We don't have a gym with a high ceiling to accommodate launching and flying our model planes, so we rented a community center gym. Still, our best plane got stuck up high and we lost it two days before the competition. That same evening, we also lost our best parachute with no way to retrieve it.

The kids felt very bad and started to modify their next best models, but they left the gym that night with heavy hearts. I told them it was ok, we had back-ups for each event, but I was feeling bad too.

The road to Nationals

Getting to the national competition requires a team to place high enough in preliminary events. Success in the regional competition is vital for teams hoping to advance.

The regional competition was at the end of February 2018 on a rainy day. We all got wet running between venues; study events in one location and models in another.

I heard from the kids that the study events were going ok, which was a good sign. We had also correctly turned in our models to the tournament officials as the rules specify—something we had failed to do properly at the Invitational tournament. So, another good sign.

The entire team was nervous when it was time to fly planes. Our first plane flew, but the kids were not happy with the result. They made some adjustments and tried again, adding an additional 20 seconds of flying time! We were all jumping on the stands.

The judges congratulated the kids and told them they broke flight time records for that competition. The also received compliments for their innovation and design in the Mission Possible and Protein Modeling activities.

Later, at the awards ceremony, we earned seven first-place medals, three second-place medals, five-third place medals and many more. We couldn’t believe it.

The announcement for the overall team placement starts at 8th place and works its way up—only the top four teams qualify for the State competition; the next milestone before nationals.

We gave a sigh of relief when our name was not announced for last four placements. I was hoping to hear our school's name when 4th place was announced. It didn't happen.

Then we did not hear our school's name for 3rd place or for 2nd place. There was a five second pause during which time I don’t think any of us took a breath.

Then we heard "Triangle Math and Science Academy" announced in 1st place—for the entire the tournament!

I danced my way from the stands to the middle of arena to accept the trophy, which I kissed as if we’d won gold at the Olympics! So incredibly proud of what our students had accomplished!

The team ran towards me and hugged me and went crazy. One kid yelled in my ear, "Mrs. Shankar, we are going to Nationals, NCSU2020."

This story will be published before we know what happens at the State competition starting 26 April. It’s a very tough competition, with the schools from all over North Carolina participating.

Our team is just two years old, but my fingers are crossed for States—hoping that we learn from the experience, maybe earn medals in a few events and make good enough improvements afterwards that our dream of TMSA@NCSU2020 becomes a reality.

For over 100 years, IBMers have created positive change in the world through their day-to-day work and their service in local communities. Since 2004, over 300,000 IBM employees and retirees have contributed more than 20 million hours of volunteer service.

Join the conversation. Tag your tweets with #IBMVolunteers, #All Things STEM, #GoodTechIBM and follow us @IBMVolunteers.

About these stories

Read about IBMers whose volunteer efforts are improving communities around the world.

Activity Kits

IBM’s volunteer Activity Kits include everything you need for a range of activities.