Panelists discuss STEM education at a recent IgniteSTEM conference. Approximately 170 teachers and school administrators participated in the event in New York City.
Courtesy IgniteSTEM

Olivia Zhang ’20 speaks in the fashionable buzzwords of entrepreneurship (“design thinking,” “rapid-fire ideation”) when she describes IgniteSTEM, a Princeton student group. But the group has a simple goal: Get teachers at the high school level, or earlier, to introduce more interactive lessons to classrooms, or create hackathons that students could attend outside of class time.

Hackathons are quick, organized competitions to solve a problem, which can be from almost any discipline in science and engineering, said Zhang, one of IgniteSTEM’s co-directors. She discovered a love of coding during a hackathon during her junior year of high school, and that encouraged her to concentrate in computer science at Princeton.

“It’s really cool that you’re able to make any idea you have come to life, even in the really short timespan of a hackathon,” Zhang said.

Approximately 170 teachers and school administrators, mostly from high schools, gathered at Google’s New York offices April 13 for IgniteSTEM’s third annual conference. Executives at Google’s education division and, an organization that tries to expand access to coding to students, gave keynote speeches.

Educators who attended the conference learned to apply the skills that make hackathons exciting to their own everyday classrooms. For example, a teacher could create a hands-on activity to learn about a scientific concept, which is often more engaging than a lecture for students, Zhang said. Conference attendees also have access to an interactive website with instructions for how to create a hackathon in their own schools.

IgniteSTEM has grown in the three years since it was founded. There are now more than 20 students who work with the group at Princeton, and Stanford students held a sister conference on their campus last year.

For the past two years, alumni from the Class of 1961 have helped IgniteSTEM with its budgeting and marketing. Students appreciate the skills they gain, and retired Princetonians love the chance to share knowledge they gained from their careers, said Joe Prather ’61, who manages the partnership.

The quality of IgniteSTEM’s conferences comes from how they are conducted, Zhang said. Attendees would break into groups between lectures and discuss what they had just heard — IgniteSTEM used the same techniques at its conference that they want teachers to use in their own classrooms.

“Our conferences aren’t just sitting in a room for eight hours,” Zhang said. “It’s a bit more engaging than just being lectured at.”