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Valley Sophomores Secure Pinterest CEO for STEM Lecture Series

Three sophomore students at Valley High School have secured the CEO of social media site Pinterest as the speaker at a lecture on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) advancements. Ben Silbermann, co-founder of the “visual bookmarking tool” Pinterest, is a Des Moines native. He will be giving a lecture on his own STEM journey via Google Hangout at 7 p.m. on April 27 in the Valley Forum. His speech, titled “Life, Career, and Success in Technology,” is the fourth in a lecture series organized by the Des Moines Student-to-Student STEM Speaker Series (Des Moines S5).

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The Des Moines S5 logo (source: dms5.org).

Arjun Ganga and Gabe Mintzer co-founded Des Moines S5 in the fall of 2014, and were later joined by Evan Eastin, who is the organization’s chief field reporter. Ganga and Mintzer were inspired to start the group as a way to share their enthusiasm for STEM. The group aims to promote science literacy and create awareness of math and science research for high school students interested in STEM. The three students organize monthly lectures on STEM topics from Des Moines-area professionals.

For the fourth lecture, Ganga wanted to pursue a much bigger name than the group had hosted before. Ganga found Silbermann’s email address on the Internet and contacted him, asking if he was willing to lecture. He also dug up the address for the Pinterest headquarters and sent a letter with the same query. No one was more surprised than the three Des Moines S5 members when an “assistant to the founders” from Pinterest replied to Ganga’s email, saying Silbermann was interested in speaking.The Des Moines S5 members are excited about the opportunity Silbermann’s speech provides.

“I think it’ll draw a larger audience just because Pinterest itself is involved in so many people’s lives,” Mintzer said. “So many people use it as a social media source, so it might not be just about STEM for them. It might draw them to STEM.”

Valley High School sophomores and Des Moines S5 leaders Gabriel Mintzer, Evan Eastin, and Arjun Ganga.

Valley High School sophomores and Des Moines S5 leaders Gabriel Mintzer, Evan Eastin, and Arjun Ganga.

Eastin, Ganga, and Mintzer are involved in STEM classes and activities themselves. They attended the same elementary school and junior high and are in many of the same activities at Valley. Eastin and Ganga are in Cyber Defense Club; Mintzer and Eastin take part in the science bowl. They became interested in sharing their interests with others as they recognized the impact STEM had on their own lives and could have on the future.

“To have knowledge of STEM is a good thing because you always want students to contribute to society,” Eastin said. “(You) can really contribute through STEM, and you want students to know that.”

Ganga and Mintzer were eager to start Des Moines S5, but found starting the group took more than just enthusiasm. They chose a name, built a website, and brainstormed speakers for the lectures they had planned. They brought Eastin into the group early on. Des Moines S5 also works with Central Academy students Mintzer knows. Nathan Rider, a student from Hoover High School, films the lectures. The three main members refer to Valley as their “home base” and work together to make all decisions for the group.  All three have taken on Des Moines S5 as an extended learning project so they can devote more time to it.

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Ganga, Eastin, and Mintzer with Des Moines S5 speaker Timothy Urness and Des Moines S5 Audio/Visual Director Nathan Rider.

They try to contact speakers several months in advance to coordinate schedules and advertise. The first lecture took place in January 2015. Timothy Urness, a Drake math and computer science professor, spoke on using computerized graphics to visually represent scientific data. Simon Wright, an ear, nose, and throat doctor, surgeon, and researcher, presented on “The Germ Revolution: DNA Microbial Analysis in the Sinus and Ear” on Feb. 26. The next lecturer was Daniel Alexander, a Drake University professor and author. He spoke about his personal journey with mathematics on March 26. Eastin interviews each speaker, then they speak on their background and topic.

“Our target is the high school kids in our audience, so we also try to have (the speakers) give some advice,” Ganga said. “They talk about how they carved their own path.”

About 40 students and parents attended each of the January and February lectures, with attendees from Valley, Central, and Dowling High School. The three Des Moines S5 members were pleased with the attendance at their first three lectures, but are still determined to find a way to broaden their organization’s appeal. They expect a boost with Silbermann’s lecture.

“I think STEM is important because, in STEM, there’s always room for innovation,” Mintzer said. “There is in other fields too, but there are so many problems, like climate change, and if we get people thinking about this earlier, how many more of those could we solve? In STEM, there’s always room for expansion and research and new conclusions.”