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The best stories being published on the SNO Sites network

Best of SNO

The best stories being published on the SNO Sites network

Best of SNO

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OCAST “Casts” A Love for Science Upon Young Scholars

Courtesy of Siya Mishra
Mishra (third from left) and Hommez (right most) pose with their fellow elementary Science Olympiad coaches and teacher adviser before a tournament, located at Sierra Vista Middle School. “The [original] idea for OCAST was elementary Science Olympiad,” Hommez said. “We were planning on creating that at Woodbury, but due to COVID, we were unable to, so we started OCAST instead. But a year later, we were able to get in touch with the principal.”

Every problem has a solution — you just have to find it.

Emergency Distance Learning, back in 2020, was exactly that problem, with seniors Zara Hommez and Siya Mishra discerning a divide between high-achieving students and an asynchronous learning environment. In an attempt to bridge this gap, Hommez, Mishra and three other local high schoolers founded Orange County Advanced Science Tutoring (OCAST) the same year, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to online STEM tutoring and hosting elementary Science Olympiad. 

The OCAST board and tutors teach individual curriculums via Zoom and Google Meet. Since OCAST’s founding, the organization has taught hundreds of unique students, which Mishra and Hommez consider a success. 

“We usually have interest of around 20 students per class,” Mishra said. “We have so many different courses offered. A student may take a class in biology and think, ‘I really like that course, let me see what else I can explore,’ and maybe they’ll sign up for physics.”

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Each class follows a 17-week-long semester system that mimics Irvine Unified School District’s academic calendar, with courses being offered in anatomy, computer science, astronomy and more, according to Hommez. To further streamline the process, Mishra and Hommez created their own website,, for class sign-ups.

But the journey to creating OCAST has not been easy, especially given that their student body is primarily 4th-7th graders.

“I think it’s difficult to keep young students engaged, especially because they have a shorter attention span,” Hommez said. A method by which I would try to keep my students engaged would be trying to create jokes or scenarios within my physics problems.”

Teaching advanced science topics at the high school level to elementary and middle schoolers has also proven to be a major difficulty. 

“As someone who took an AP Physics course, I could see that 11th graders were struggling with even the basic fundamentals of physics,” Hommez said. “It’s very hard to teach such a basic concept because it involves so much from the get-go, from equations to different concepts. And it’s really hard for kids to understand that from such a young age.”

Yet following the complexity of managing such a vast tutoring nonprofit comes great satisfaction, with Hommez and Mishra not only being able to fuel students’ passions for STEM subjects, but learning from them as well. 

“My favorite part has definitely been talking to kids that young, especially since it’s kind of hard to reach that audience as a student who’s in high school,” Mishra said. “You’re seeing the differences in the curriculum nowadays. It’s definitely getting a lot more competitive for them, but they still love to have fun. And it’s a break from the stress of high school.”

At the end of the day, the feeling of being able to contribute to future generations has been a driving motivator for Mishra’s and Hommez’s mission. 

“I always have those moments when I’m working with kids in elementary Science Olympiad, where you just are filled with such a sense of fulfillment through the long hours that you put into organizing the teams — talking to parents,” Hommez said. “It’s all just worth it to see the kids smile.”

This story was originally published on Portola Pilot on November 9, 2023.