A Glimpse into the PEERS Program
Project Engagement Encouraging Rising Students (PEERS), supported by the University of Houston College of Medicine and the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute, is a program focused on encouraging STEM education by providing mentorships to high school students in underserved communities. These students are paired with University of Houston undergraduates to create projects focused on building lasting positive changes to the community. Each student team presents their final project at the Annual PEERS competition to compete for a monetary prize.
This academic year’s capstone competition was centered around the question; “If you had $5 million , how would you improve wellness in your Houston community?” I had the privilege of interviewing this year’s PEERS Program project heads, Maham Gardezi and Arwa Hasnain. We discussed this year’s theme, how COVID affected this year’s participation and what it’s like to be able to teach, and learn from, such a different generation of young scholars.
- Julia Chamon, with the HPE Data Science Institute: First and foremost, l would love to know a little more background on this year's capstone event, as well as the theme. This year's project theme was "If you had $5 million, how would you improve the wellness in your Houston community?”
- Maham Gardezi: That’s right. Students were challenged to create solutions that related to the given topic. We spent the first semester teaching the students about community health, wellness and how to creatively think. We asked, “What are the barriers and solutions to any given problem and how do you address them?” The second part of the problem is going through the guided sections of creating a solution, such as how to build a logistical model or a gantt chart. This year, we created a unique experience from the previous capstones by splitting students off into sections based on the social determinants of health, such as food scarcity, housing, healthcare and education. Within those sections, students had the opportunity to explore one determinant a little bit more than the others – and they still understood how they all intersected.
Now remember, this year’s capstone event was fully conducted online. So there was a part two for that theme- It was “How would you modify your solution for the COVID-19 restrictions?” At the time, the impact that the pandemic had on all our current community health organizations was severe. We did not feel like we could create a theme ignoring the problem at hand, but we did not want to inhibit the students’ creativity by restricting them to online events. We tried to get the best of both worlds by giving the students a broad and challenging topic to initially work with and then pushing them to explore alternatives and ways that their project could still safely exist in pandemic conditions.
- JC: What sort of projects did you see?
- Arwa Hasnain : Since the high school students were split into different tracks, we saw a variety of creative solutions! Everyone had the intent of creating a long-term solution so the projects we saw were built on the idea of community change. The $5 million and broad timeline provided the creative freedom to develop an effective solution. All their projects focused on addressing the whole community by providing opportunities and resources to every individual.
- JC: Were there any that truly stuck out?
- AH: Every project was brilliant in its own way! The project heads, judges and mentors were extremely impressed by the skill level that the students displayed in their projects. The application of community health to their respective plans was evident through their attention to every aspect of the project, such as their models, gantt charts, carefully planned budgets and so on.
- JC: Who were the winners? What were their projects focused on?
- 1st Place - Feeding Young Scholars of Tomorrow
Presenters: Anjali Agrawal, Favor Igwilo, Ibtesam Jamal
Mentors: Shalini Ghurye and Elaine Tran
AH: These students developed an organization that implements community fridges within the Third Ward of Houston, adjacent to the UH campus. In their solution they foresaw success by directing 50,000 pounds of food to the community, as well as attending food fairs. Their primary focus was to educate the community on nutrition, sustainability and resolving food insecurity.
- 2nd Place - RHASA: Refugee Health and Social Adjustment
Presenters: Zeba Motiwala, Ayesha Hussain, Saira Hussain, Jasmine Wani
Mentors: Hiba Rabieh and Nabeela Siddeeque
AH: Within this group’s organization, their goal was to eliminate the language barriers, lack of transportation and cultural stigmas that prevent refugee youth from seeking mental health treatment. Based on the students’ own experiences with the refugee community, they wanted their program to serve as a community of support for the refugees, volunteers and doctors.
- 3rd Place - Don't Forget the Refugees!
Presenters: Mansi Patel, Zaynah Yousuf, Naisha Vinayak, Sudharshini Prasanna
Mentors: Rashida Rangwala and Malika Tripathy
AH: This project's primary purpose was to focus and improve the literacy rates of the Houston refugee youth population by partnering with Las Americas Middle School. They aimed to increase performance levels by conducting qualitative analysis regarding their interventions. Based on their analysis, they would implement identical methods in schools with refugee populations, as well.
- Honorable Mention - Life After Incarceration
Presenters: Diya Kashyap, Maria Siddeeque, Madeeha, Siddeeque, Sheena Gupta
Mentors: Joyce Varughese
AH: These students developed a program called Wonders for Women after Incarceration (WWAI), that wa designed to support post-incarcerated women on their journey to recovery from augmented mental health issues. The organization aimed to institute a successful transition back into society for these women by providing them with shelter, healthcare, transportation services, employment and legal resources, and a strong social community to uplift their spirits and help strengthen them during their fight.
- Honorable Mention - The Neighborly Depots
Presenter: Jaqueline Villanueva Govea
Mentors: Sobia Syed and Jett Lim
AH: This student from the housing track focused her project on a “neighborly depot,” which she defined as a physical building where residents in the Houston community can come to receive supplies and apply for jobs. Her intent was to build a social support system that was sustainable and attentive to every community member’s needs.
- JC: Wow, those are all pretty amazing. In regards to the hierarchy, why do you believe each student may have won?
- MG: Our third-place winners went out of their way to reach out to the principal of the high school they were focusing on and discuss solutions with them. The first and second place winners demonstrated incredibly thoughtful and organized solutions that could potentially be implemented one day. We also had students who focused on incarcerated women and they went above and beyond in learning how incarceration affects women and their health. One of the best things about having such a broad topic is that you give students the flexibility to choose unique populations and focus their solution towards them. No two projects were alike.
- JC: What does the PEERS program mean to you, as heads and as mentors?
- MG: I’m graduating this year so it is a bit more sentimental for me. In the past, I had never worked with a program that used project-based learning, but I fell in love with my experiences empowering students to be creative in their solutions. It was exciting to see my students challenge cultural norms and ask important questions like why Hurricane Harvey hit minority communities the hardest and, as a result, they revealed their own struggles. PEERS taught me how to listen to a community’s needs and, more importantly, how to respond. Writing curriculum was also one of the biggest and exciting challenges I had as a project head. Given that the entire program was online, we were challenged with creating a lesson plan that was engaging, interactive and thoughtful. However, we decided to take advantage of the fact that all the students were at home. We strove to improve our curriculum with a sense of humor and innovation. PEERS is not a perfect program, but it constantly strives for improvement and responds to feedback. I hope to one day see this program impact students all over the Houston area.
- AH: As a project head and mentor, PEERS has taught me so much; beyond the leadership experience I have learned the beauty of diversity. Each of our PEERS students come from their background which entails a different perspective on the lessons they receive on community health. While we weren’t able to execute our program in person, I could see how the mentors and students were connecting on similar ideas and discussing their perspectives throughout the modules. PEERS has provided the education experience that I never saw myself being a part of when I entered undergrad. It has shown me how essential it is to listen and communicate, even in STEM. I am beyond excited to serve as a project head for the 2021-2022 and to continue as a part of this amazing program!
- JC: What do you think it means to the kids who are a part of the PEERS program as well?
- MG: I hope that PEERS gives the high school students an opportunity to realize that they have the ability to create solutions to the problems around them and that they are not helpless by any means. It challenges them in a unique way that schools usually don’t. During the competition, the students had the opportunity to meet with inspiring community health individuals who praised their innovation and advised them on how to improve their projects. It was wonderful to see how excited the students were during the competition day. Moreover, the kids got to work with some of the most amazing mentors we