It's not every day that you assemble a panel of four NASA scientists with 10 college degrees among them, including the lead inventor of something called the phenolic impregnated carbon ablator, for a chat with 50 high school students in the school library.
But Deepika Bodapati figured it would be worth the effort to bring the all-woman panel to her all-girl high school as part of her crusade to conquer the reluctance of students, especially girls and low-income kids, to pursue classes and careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
"I've actually thought about this a lot," Bodapati, a senior at San Jose's Presentation High School, says of the paucity of women and people of color working in science, technology and the rest. "I think it's a lack of role models that are leading these fields."
When you're a kid, you look around for examples of people like you doing what you want to do when you grow up. Don't get Bodapati wrong. She knows there are people of color, people who struggled as kids, women and all kinds of other people excelling in the fields of the future. But the numbers just aren't there yet.
"It's so sad," she says, "because there are women who are doing all these amazing things. The fact is there are not enough women, so they're not able to make the same sound as men."
You've probably heard politicians, business leaders and community activists worry about the problem in general. We're becoming an
Already, there is a skills gap that means tech companies can have trouble filling positions even in a time of high unemployment. The theories and solutions are many, but most agree that we need to encourage more students to head in the STEM direction and that one barrier for kids -- especially poor kids, children of color and girls -- is a lack of role models and mentors.
That's the problem Bodapati has chosen to tackle -- not because she's lacked encouragement, top-flight science programs or mentors, but rather because she's had them in abundance.
"It's important that I do work hard on my school stuff," she says, "but I would say it's equally important to give back."
Bodapati has worked since elementary school with Schmahl Science, a San Jose nonprofit that supplements school science programs in struggling districts. Belinda Lowe-Schmahl, the program's CEO, says Bodapati knows well the stories of schools that budget $250 a year for a science curriculum serving 180 kids.
"Deepika has been immersed in this for years, hearing these things," Lowe-Schmahl says. "I think she felt a call to action."
Bodapati's latest action was inspired by a winter round-table discussion she participated in with a U.S. Department of Agriculture official. Her inner-networker got a White House contact from the visiting deputy undersecretary. Bodapati called. And called. And called.
"Then all of a sudden, I shot right up the list," Bodapati says. The White House science and technology policy office put her touch with NASA Ames, which lined up the panel's scientists -- research computer engineer Misty Davies, planetary scientist Jennifer Heldmann, astronomer Pamela Marcum and deputy director of aeronautics Huy Tran.
"I think it's a wonderful idea," says Karen Bradford, NASA Ames chief of staff, "I'm in awe of Deepika taking this on at her age." The NASA women talked about their career paths, about sticking with it, about trying new things, about listening to those who are helpful. And as for listening to the others?
"Don't ever let anyone else try to convince you that you're not good enough," Heldmann told the girls in the library. "The worst thing you can do is listen to them."
Bodapati, of course is working on another message. And she realizes that the highly motivated students at her private Silicon Valley high school might not be the ones who most need to hear it. Her plan is to organize similar panel discussions at schools where students don't have the same advantages that she and some of her classmates have.
She's aiming for students who are saddled with disadvantages of geography, living in neighborhoods where just walking to school can mean navigating a world of gangs, drugs and violence.
"In these underrepresented areas, there are so many other things to be concerned about," Bodapati says. "There are so many other influences that I don't have to deal with."
Bringing more panel discussions to other schools will no doubt be complicated by bureaucracy, logistics and the busy schedules of the role models Bodapati is hoping to recruit.
But after spending an afternoon in the Presentation High library, I really wouldn't bet against her.