How Sankriti Deva, a 17-year old youth activist and entrepreneur, is helping bridge the STEM gap in her local community through her organization, InventSTEM. InventSTEM connects students to fields of interest from which they might otherwise have felt excluded, encourages involvement in local politics, and inspires them to bring about change in their local communities.
By Isabel Hardwig
Sanskriti Deva has had a busy year. As a senior in high school, she balances college applications and the stresses of attending a competitive boarding school with her non-profit organization and technological start-ups, as well as her research in dark matter energy at Duke University. At 17 years old, Sanskriti Deva is a technological entrepreneur, activist, and community organizer. For years, she has been drawing on her political and social backgrounds to help her hometown. She hopes to expand these efforts in the future.
At 17 years old, Sanskriti Deva is a technological entrepreneur, activist, and community organizer.
Sanskriti’s first foray into technological innovation came in eighth grade, when she placed a timer into a blender to experiment with time dilation and Einstein’s Laws of Relativity. She discovered that a timer in a blender and a timer on a table top would show different times when stopped, proving that time travel is possible. She brought her findings to her school’s science fair, and won. This encouraged her to pursue some of her other technological interests, and to find out what STEM has to offer her and her community.
Sanskriti’s second burst of inspiration came from a trash can and a joke. “There was a trash can that me and my friend group would stand beside every morning [with the school’s name on it],” she recalls, “but underneath it said ‘Your Future,’ so the joke was that our future was trash.” Her friend suggested that she take it literally and improve the school’s trash system, so Sanskriti designed the SmartCan.
The concept of the SmartCan is simple: a trash can that can recognize different types of waste and sort out recycling, compost, and landfill-bound garbage on its own. It may sound futuristic, but the technology is sound. “It uses image processing . . . it takes a picture using an infrared sensor of the item you throw away, and then sorts it.” Sanskriti brought her idea to the Girls on Fire pitchfest, and won the challenge. One of the judges offered to help her realize her idea, and over the years Sanskriti was able to market her product to a number of public spaces around her hometown of Charlotte, NC, where they help to reduce the waste stream around the city. “More people recycle now, because you don’t have to think about it.” This project earned her the NC Woman of the Year in Technology award for 2018.
Girls on Fire provided Sanskriti with a space to share her ideas with like-minded teens . . .
When first developing her product, events like Girls on Fire provided Sanskriti with a space to share her ideas with like-minded teens and meet potential investors. Eventually, however, she started to notice a discrepancy between the lives of the friends she made at these events and the friends she already had. “My friends in my own school, some of the ones who had helped me with my ideas, were dropping out,” she says. “Kids didn’t know what the SAT was until senior year of high school.” At the same time, she was meeting people through her STEM work who’d had testing prep from very young ages, and access to resources that her classmates didn’t. “That’s how InventSTEM started,” she says. “I wanted to bridge that gap.” For her efforts on her school board and local government, she was recognized at her district’s State of Our Schools address, and received the opportunity to go to the White House and discuss education reform on a national level. When an official suggested that local non-profits could assist with the government effort, Sanskriti started to think about what else she could do for her community.
Sanskriti started to think about what else she could do for her community.
Sanskriti’s nonprofit organization, InventSTEM, started as a small organization focused primarily on outreach to local schools. Sanskriti’s participation in both school and city governments helped bring her attention to what needed to be done, and gave her the necessary background to enact local change. As it grew, the organization took on projects such as providing WiFi to rural areas, funding college and career outreach, and even supplying Chromebooks to kids who don’t have easy access to technology. Philanthropist organizations in Charlotte took an interest in her mission, and with their help, she increased its scope. She brought in more workers, primarily from her own school. “It’s by high schoolers, for high schoolers,” she says.
Sanskriti has always been acutely aware of how fortunate she is to have had access to mentors, sponsors, and guides . . .
Growing up in a low-income area, Sanskriti has always been acutely aware of how fortunate she is to have had access to the mentors, sponsors, and guides who helped her along the way. “I felt like other people could be lucky in that sense,” she says. To assist with this, InventSTEM also connects students with the resources they need to work through their own ideas, much like the connections Sanskriti gained from her competitions. The organization offers a mentorship program that connects students to their fields of interest, but it also encourages them to get involved with local politics and legislative action in order to make change in their own communities. “I learned how to do that the hard way, through years and years of research,” she says. “We’re giving students those resources.” InventSTEM teaches kids how to talk to their representatives, attend local council meetings, and do the research necessary to enact meaningful progress where they live.
InventSTEM teaches kids how . . . to enact meaningful progress where they live.
Currently, Sanskriti lives and works at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, a residential high school in Durham, NC. She recently received the Bowman Brockman endowment for her SmartCan, and continues to reshape and advance her ideas. “I’m planning to build another version of a prototype, and we’re in talks to start mass production over the summer,” she says. For InventSTEM, she hopes to expand the program beyond North Carolina and into different state chapters. Ideally, she says, each state would have its own version of the organization so that it would be better-equipped to address local issues.
When asked about her personal goals, Sanskriti says that she hopes to continue with her current projects “Sustainable technology is the way of the future, and I really think that we can use technology to create a better world,” she says. However, she’s also interested in a more artistic exploration of activism, ideally connected to her own cultural identity and history. “I realized that I want to learn more about my culture and where I come from,” she says. “I want to see how I can explore art, activism, and my own Indian identity.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Isabel Hardwig is from Asheville, NC, and is a junior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math.