Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Tony Wang Is Helping To Change Our World

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Form a great team. I was so lucky to have found such great team members, who were so helpful in running the program. Having a good team makes everything so much faster and more effective, and this knowledge has been so helpful to me in everything that I do. A good team makes spreading the word feel easy, and you can cast a much broader net of impact.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Wang.

Tony Wang is the founder and president of the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair Student Leadership Board (ACSEF SLB), a team of 50 high school students across 20 schools around the Bay Area. The SLB has held various free workshops to support low-income and underrepresented students in STEM, teaching topics ranging from programming to scientific inquiry. The SLB is currently planning large-scale in-person Maker Faires and Hackathons to engage even more students and promote greater diversity in research and STEM.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Of course! I spent the majority of my childhood in the sunny San Francisco Bay Area, where I spent my time biking with my friends and going on boba runs; however, a significant portion of my upbringing was also spent overseas, staying with my grandparents in Beijing as well as the province of Guizhou. These experiences in seeing firsthand the vast difference in educational quality and opportunities between different locations and ethnic groups were very formative in creating who I am today. I’m currently a student at Amador Valley High School, where I lead my school’s National Honor Society, Speech and Debate Club, Biology Club, and Cybersecurity/CS Club.

You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

The mission of the ACSEF SLB is multi-pronged: our main goals include promoting underrepresented and underserved groups in STEM, increasing the diversity of the science fair, providing leadership and networking opportunities to students, and serving as an organized form of student voice.

Our organization is currently divided into four core divisions: mentorship, communications, marketing, and activities. Each division is led by a different officer team, and each division runs its own initiatives to further the goals of the SLB. For example, the mentorship division matches students to gain guidance and advice on their research projects. The communications team contacts Title I low-income school administrations and teachers to provide support for their STEM programs and encourage science fair programs. The marketing team runs the various social media accounts of the fair, with advertising focusing specifically on traditionally underrepresented groups. The activities division runs workshops providing free guidance to help students conduct research and create their own projects, and we’re currently planning in-person Maker Faires and Hackathons with buses to transport students, which is super exciting! We’ve been mainly virtual over the past few years, so this is definitely a really big step forward for us as an organization.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Growing up, one of my favorite experiences was participating in my school’s annual science fairs. I would be so excited to design my own experiments and create something new, whether it be the classic volcano, to even sundials and electrical circuits. There was always something so mystical about designing my own experiments to discover something new about the world.

These experiences, pasting my results onto a trifold, sharing them with the world, and receiving positive feedback were so encouraging in increasing my passion for science. Thus, one of my biggest passions is increasing fun STEM opportunities for students; I believe fostering a love of learning in children is one of the best ways of ensuring a bright future for them and all of society as a whole.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

During my sophomore year, I earned the fantastic opportunity to present at the California Science and Engineering Fair. Through this fair, I was able to discover so many inspiring projects and network with lots of new people. I found out that there were actually student-led research organizations, such as a student board in San Diego. Inspired, I knew I had to start something like that in my own regional fair; it was the perfect way of getting students to work on something socially impactful, just what we were missing, and I immediately got to work on setting it up.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

The first and most important thing that I did to get my project started was to define a clear mission; after doing that, it became much easier to shape the organization around that mission and keep it centered in all that we do.

After I did that, I listed out some ideas for what our SLB could do. I did some research and thought about what the Bay Area needs the most work in, as well as what resources I had access to being near Silicon Valley. I decided that I wanted to specifically focus on income disparity, which is especially prevalent in Alameda County, such as in heavily impoverished areas such as Oakland. Another issue very prevalent in the SF Bay was unequal access to tech and tech education, which is something I really try to address through the ACSEF SLB.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I’ve had so many incredible experiences in leading the SLB, but one that happened recently less than a week ago is when one of our students actually reached out to us because his robotics team was interested in helping us out with our events.

His team has experience in CAD, competitive math, and programming, and they wanted to help us run our in-person events, such as helping lead our coding workshops and demoing Python using the robots they had built. We were able to collaborate and begin planning on having them set up a booth at our in-person Maker Faire, and having them teach CAD using OnShape.

More importantly, we were able to discuss having them lend us multiple laptops for the events, as well as helping us collaborate with the Alameda County Library System to borrow their laptops. It really goes to show the importance of friendship and networking in creating impact; there are so many wonderful mutually beneficial relationships that can come from it.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

One of the really silly mistakes I made earlier on was that whenever I responded to email chains I would only keep the person to whom the email was addressed. However, this ended up causing many problems, as everyone else on the email chain would no longer be updated on anything we were discussing, which caused some confusion on dates and logistics.

Through my work with the SLB, I’ve really learned to always try to keep everyone in the loop even if it doesn’t directly concern them, since it’s always important that everyone is on the same page. This happened the other way around too; last year, when the fair announced that the fair would be virtual again, the activities team had already begun planning workshops teaching how to design poster boards. Luckily, we were able to fix that communication problem, and it all taught us some very valuable lessons about the importance of clear and constant communication!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Yes, absolutely! Mentors are so so important and have been absolutely incredible guiding beacons in all that I do. I work most closely with Nick Young, a grad student at UCSF and a member of the adult board, and I run many of my ideas by him for approval. He’s been not only a great mentor but also a great friend, and I can’t express my gratitude enough for all that he does.

The other mentor who has been extremely helpful to me was actually Nick’s high school science teacher and the founder of the fair, Patti Carothers! She was the one who first approved of my idea and helped me get it off the ground. She was the one who created the ACSEF and set up the nonprofit, and she is one of my greatest inspirations.

Balita Shepperson, the current fair director, is also an extremely encouraging role model to me. She inspires me most in that although she’s retired, she voluntarily puts in her own time to run the fair, connecting the researchers of tomorrow. It reminds me of the quote that a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under. It is people like Mrs. Shepperson and Mrs. Carothers who make our society great. They provide endless mentorship, carefully guiding our projects, while constantly emailing us new opportunities and developing young students in not only science but also in responsibility and community.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I remember in one of our earlier workshops, there was a middle schooler who stayed after the first workshop and was on the fence about participating in the fair, worrying that she would not be able to complete a project in time. I remember encouraging her to just give it a try and not to worry about driving results, but rather about testing different things. She stayed afterward after some of the other workshops as well, and I remember feeling so proud when after one of the workshops she told me she had decided to take the leap and participate in the fair.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Creating more equality in education. There is a vast difference in the quality of education between different cities and states, not only in STEM but in the arts and humanities as well. It’s important that politicians create policies that improve the educational systems in less affluent areas; I truly believe that the public education system is one of the most powerful methods of equality in civilization, and investing in it is an incredible way to lift communities out of poverty. Not only that, I think we need to take a closer look at the media children are consuming; and I don’t mean videogames being a bad influence or anything like that. Rather, I believe we need to discuss science more often in youth and popular culture. We need more documentaries about science to keep the topic “cool”, in order to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Ultimately, I hope these lessons will help ensure that we continue to have a modern, forward-looking, and innovative scientific community that benefits everyone.
  2. Enforcing fact-based journalism. Currently, humanity has access to nearly unlimited amounts of information, but it has become so much harder to handle. The news is riddled with conflicting information: one day, raspberries prevent heart disease, and the next day, it’s linked to obesity. To give the public the tools to help them make sense of information, we need a wider array of scientists to give lessons at a young age. Doing so will help overcome the skepticism and mistrust that has plagued science for so long. To promote an understanding of science, we must speak about it not only through popular media but also through our public school systems. Whether we are discussing sex and contraception, climate change, or evolution, a thorough understanding of the scientific method is critical.
  3. Promoting flexible thinking. We’re taught to think of “information” as a collection of unchanging truths from childhood — a mindset that doesn’t prepare us to make sense of constant novel information. The real world is not monochrome; there is no group that is always right or always wrong. The world is a messy place, and humans are messy people. As we enter the era of data — a time when information is so easily accessible — we need to find a way to make sense of it. In our country, there is an absence of public awareness of how research works. We must change how we think; information is fluid, not solid, and we should strive to constantly replace our beliefs with better ones. And we should encourage our children to do the same. We need to show children that there is no single answer, and that one theory will likely be replaced with another. A child should know that at any point, they can follow up with a trusted adult or a good source for an explanation. Even if they feel uncertain about a topic, it is always better to be wrong than to never be curious.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Form a great team. I was so lucky to have found such great team members, who were so helpful in running the program. Having a good team makes everything so much faster and more effective, and this knowledge has been so helpful to me in everything that I do. A good team makes spreading the word feel easy, and you can cast a much broader net of impact.
  2. Don’t be afraid of rejection. In starting the program, the biggest starting hurdle was simply sending out the email to request to start the program, and getting over the fear that my request would get rejected allowed so many great things to come. One major thing I’ve learned over my past few months is that rejection is not in any way a bad thing or an obstacle and doesn’t take anything away from you or your achievements.
  3. Stay organized. One big thing that I’ve noticed to be very important in all teams is effective organization. For example, our team uses a Discord server that serves as a central location for all major announcements, and we also have designated division-based channels for planning division-specific meetings. We also have a shared google drive with folders for each division and each set of workshops, which allows anyone to quickly find whatever resources they’re looking for. Having a good organizational structure set is extremely helpful in saving time and streamlining the work that needs to be done.
  4. Communicate often! It’s so important to keep everyone updated on all the different initiatives going on so that we are all on the same page. This includes frequent check-in meetings, and also just remembering to send out meeting notes and updating shared calendars. These things which keep the team updated are essential for maintaining momentum and productivity.
  5. Do something you believe in. It’s so important that you find something that you truly, eagerly believe in from the bottom of your heart. I’ve found that it is so helpful to me to stay focused on the impact that I am trying to create, and it naturally leads to new ideas. I’ve found that if I’m doing something I don’t find meaningful, I become bored or unmotivated. By making sure that the SLB stays focused on creating social good, I’m constantly reinvigorated to do more and help more people.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell all young people that age is not a barrier to making a difference; rather, it is an accelerant. When I was younger, I always thought that I had to become a grown-up to make a difference. Constantly hearing things like “you’re doing to have a bright future” can, unfortunately, condition us into thinking that things can’t be changed in the present, and we have to grow older to be able to make a change. I believe youth are some of the most potent forces for social good; we have unbridled amounts of ambition and free time, unrestrained by responsibilities. Although we are sometimes seen as naive or overly eager, I believe this is a good thing. It makes us never settle for less, constantly fighting for an idealistic, brighter future.

More importantly, something that I want all people to know, especially young people, is that making an impact is fun. The sense of fulfillment I get from helping my community is almost euphoric in a way, and I am always looking forward to the next event. I want all young people to think about what matters to them, and to take action to resolve the problems they see in their community and the world. The world can always benefit from our youthful optimism, dedication, and passion!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Fei-Fei Li, Feng Zhang, and Sal Khan — a common theme I’ve found among those who I’m most inspired by is that not only are they brilliant minds, but more importantly, they all lead the way in creating equality in education and furthering opportunities for STEM for youth around the world.

Fei-Fei Li not only created ImageNet, a massive visual AI database but also founded the AI4ALL summer program for girls. Similarly, Feng Zhang not only invented the CRISPR-Cas9 system but also does a lot of work to support Society for Science high school programs. And Sal Khan, of course, founded the legendary and globally beloved free accessible education platform Khan Academy after graduating from MIT, which has saved me on countless exams and allowed me to get a broad education on so many different topics. I love that all of these individuals don’t have to pick one or the other in terms of innovation and community service; rather these two go hand in hand, and they show me what kind of person I want to be in the future.

How can our readers follow you online?

@acsef_official on Instagram is actively run by the ACSEF SLB, and we’re always open to questions!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you for having me! Good luck to all the readers in all your endeavors!

Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Tony Wang Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.