Everything is made of something. Materials science is the study of what objects are made of – from metals to ceramics and polymers – and why certain materials function the way they do. It is the science that explains why your phone charger is made of the insulator polycarbonate or why a car contains the fireproof material fiberglass in its bumpers, doors, roof, and wheels. Though materials science and engineering (MSE) is not often studied in schools, it is the foundation of all objects in our world. 

The lack of public information and instruction on MSE inspired high school student Saif Punjwani to create STEMEncounters, a nonprofit organization focused on closing gaps in STEM education and making it more accessible to a public audience. 

On their website, STEMEncounters features a variety of educational resources including free online courses, MSE podcasts with invited guests, and a blog covering STEM and MSE in the news. STEMEncounters also posts educational content on their various social media pages, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 

As CEO and founder of STEMEncounters, Saif first became interested in MSE when he was in ninth grade. While scrolling on YouTube, he came across a video on MSE and was hooked. With growing curiosity, Saif began looking for online courses on the subject so he could learn more. He researched studies and reached out to professors to learn more about their work in the field. Yet, as he explored, he also noticed that most of the classes on MSE required fees, making them inaccessible to a wider audience. He became inspired to create an organization that enabled others to learn about MSE and STEM without having to pay. 

After developing the idea for creating STEMEncounters, Saif knew he needed to create a team to develop the organization. He asked Shaaz Ali, a sophomore student at Herricks High School in Long Island, NY, to serve as the Chief Operating Officer. Together, they expanded their team to include other high school students, both Ismaili and non-Ismaili, who could take on roles for developing the website, managing social media, creating content, and more. 

The STEMEncounters mission is built on an important ethic of our faith, which is seeking and sharing knowledge. STEMEncounters aims to make knowledge more accessible to others without putting a price on it. 

Saif explained that he is also inspired by the ethic of voluntary service, embedding it into his own work ethic as a leader of the organization and using volunteers to build STEMEncounters further.  

Though STEMEncounters largely focuses on MSE, it also offers resources on topics in other STEM fields. Much of this is due to Saif’s genuine passion for science and his involvement in extracurricular activities related to other STEM disciplines. He has participated in his school’s robotics and physics teams, as well as his local Science Olympiad team. He also conducts collegiate-level research in MSE at a Structural DNA Nanotechnology Laboratory affiliated with New York University. 

At present, Saif is working on creating an app called “The Material” which serves as a forum for sharing information about MSE across the globe. Users can comment, communicate, and share their research from wherever they are located and also learn about others’ research.  

Saif also started a local chapter of SAMPE (Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering) that was integrated into his school. This chapter of SAMPE focuses on research in MSE, combined with other topics that students are interested in, such as neuroscience or artificial intelligence. The students research and write papers and present their findings at local symposiums in the community and at school.  

In mid-June, STEMEncounters partnered with the Aga Khan Youth and Sports Board for the  Northeast USA to implement a short, five-day course on computer-aided design (CAD). This event, designed for eighth and ninth graders, was the organization’s first workshop and taught participants how to use Autodesk Inventor Professional 2021, an advanced-level CAD software, to so anything from modeling buildings to designing robot mechanisms. 

As a senior in high school, Saif feels that one of his biggest takeaways from creating STEMEncounters is developing leadership skills and effectively managing a team. At first, he tried to work in each of the different areas of the organization but soon learned that it didn’t give other team members room to grow on their own. 

“I heard this quote a while back but never knew what it meant – ‘the best CEO never does any work.’ [This means] you put so much work into the company that it basically runs itself because of how well you built it,” Saif said. He explained that one main takeaway was learning not to micromanage. “The organization will build if you let it build itself,” he added.  

Thinking long-term, Saif’s vision for the future is to have chapters of STEMEncounters in each region of the United States, as well as several global chapters. 

“In terms of members and courses, I want to increase and have as [many volunteers as possible]. Anyone who can teach STEM is a valuable asset. I think in a couple years, I would like STEMEncounters to be like the Khan Academy of the STEM world. As everyone knows Khan Academy, I would love for STEMEncounters to be a household name,” he said. 

For students and young professionals looking to create an organization, Saif’s advice is to create something you are truly passionate about, rather than imitating another previously established organization. “If you put your own spin on it – if you put your passion on it – people will see that. They’ll see this is an organization worth coming to,” he said.