Have you ever witnessed an “ah-ha” moment? That moment when a lightbulb turns on and someone, especially a child, suddenly realizes their potential?
A few Christmases back, my husband and I were perusing the board game aisle, shopping for gifts for our four nieces and nephews. (Yes, we’re “that” aunt and uncle who think kids these days have way too much screen time and need more board games, coloring books, and outdoor adventure gear in their lives.) I’m sure we picked out some classics too, but the one that sticks in my head is a game called Engineering Ants. The object was to work together to help ants traverse obstacles by creating contraptions out of a collection of seemingly random objects.
Of course, on Christmas morning, the board games couldn’t compete with the iPods and video games, but we managed to convince the older ones to break open Engineering Ants and play with us. We stumbled through, eventually getting our ants to safety, and surprisingly, our oldest niece asked to play again.
After the third or so round, she jumped up, clapped her hands to her head and squealed “My brain has never been so full of ideas!”
I firmly believe that quality education is one of the keys to solving the world’s problems, and the basics – from multiplication tables to reading comprehension – are certainly an important part of that. But at the end of the day, shouldn’t we be encouraging kids to have more than just brains full of facts and right answers? Wouldn’t we rather have a generation of kids with brains full of ideas?
But how do we get there?
Morgan Jones has some ideas on that. A whole brainful of ideas, actually.
Jones is the founder of The STEAM Engine, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing quality science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) educational programs and opportunities to Oklahoma kids ages 8-13, especially those from groups that have historically been underrepresented in STEM fields including women/girls, black, Latinx, Native American, as well as those from low-income or rural communities.
Since its founding in the fall of 2019, the organization has been enriching young lives through interactive programs, such as Code Your Own Adventure, Thrills and Spills Roller Coaster Physics, and Wands and Wizards (Harry Potter-themed) Camp-in-a-Box. Future programs are in the works, with topics ranging from the AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) to oil and gas industries. Jones also has a goal to create a network of local Makerspaces and a fleet of Makermobiles that will provide communities across the state with hands-on equipment and safe spaces where kids can build and create.
The programs and Makerspaces are designed to provide kids with a learning experience different from the structured atmosphere of school. Jones believes it is important for kids to be exposed to an environment where they can explore STEAM topics on their own – where they can be creative and take educational risks without the looming consequence of a bad grade. Ultimately, she hopes this open-ended approach to learning will help kids connect what they learn in school to real life and potential careers and open up an untapped pipeline of talent that can close the STEM workforce gap in Oklahoma.
Wallace engineer and STEAM Engine board member Kasha Egan, PE, SE, shares Jones’ vision of what education could be. After meeting Jones, a licensed architect, at a Women in Architecture event and hearing about her outreach goals, Egan knew right away that she wanted to help.
“I’ve always found teaching one of the highest professions there could be – educating our future,” said Egan. “It always seems like such a loss for either people who don’t have the resources or teachers who don’t have the resources to really reach the full demographic. There are so many people who have talent that’s untapped who deserve a chance.”
One aspect that makes The STEAM Engine unique is that the programs really emphasize the “Arts” in STEAM. STEM fields are typically thought of as data driven and empirical with right and wrong answers, but STEAM Engine programs focus on showing kids the creative side of problem solving – the “art” of these technical fields. While both school courses and STEAM Engine programs aim to provide kids with problem-solving tools and skills, in a traditional classroom, kids get wrapped up in using these tools and skills to arrive at the correct answer as quickly as possible. As a result, a lot of kids miss out on pursuing a deeper understanding of concepts or looking at problems from multiple angles. With STEAM Engine programs, Jones hopes kids dig down and let their creativity and ingenuity run wild as they develop their own design solutions that are unique unto themselves.
Another distinctive facet of The STEAM Engine is that the organization is built around long-term programs and relationships. Instead of just hosting a short-term event that might get kids excited about STEAM for a day, Jones’ intention is to create programs where kids become invested in what they’re learning and build relationships with the instructors and mentors over the course of several weeks. Additionally, she always makes sure that kids can see how what they’re learning connects to a career.
“That’s why I love the programming that The STEAM Engine is building. It’s not just a quantity thing, it has that quality metric,” said Egan.
Last year, Jones and her team served 35 kids in small group settings. This year, they hope to reach 600. That’s an aggressive scale up, but Jones and her team are up for the challenge.
Are you interested in helping to foster a generation of idea-inspired kids and a high quality, homegrown STEM workforce? Here are a few ways you can get involved:
- Donations and Sponsorship
The STEAM Engine is ready to power down the track, but Egan and Jones agree that a lack of resources is what’s holding them back. In order to scale up, they need the funds to launch the initial curriculums and pay staff to develop content and utilize volunteers.This non-profit organization is only a year and a half old, and normal start-up challenges have been compounded by Covid-19 obstacles. As things get back to normal and companies fall back into more financially secure positions, Jones is hoping that companies who hear about The STEAM Engine and believe in its vision and goals will consider making an investment in their future workforce.By helping The STEAM Engine launch programs, corporate sponsors are helping to ensure continued excellence and innovation in their industry. Through program sponsorship, a company can share its industry knowledge and provide input on curriculum development. Additionally, sponsorship creates ready-made mentorship and community involvement opportunities for employees and gives the company a chance to get their name out.
Part of The STEAM Engine’s model is providing their programs free of charge to groups that would not typically be able to afford or have access to these types of opportunities. Jones is finding these audiences by partnering with organizations who already have established relationships with kids in under-resourced communities. The STEAM Engine has hosted programs in conjunction with Our Neighborhood Empowered (ONE), SWOKC Library (Pioneer Library System), and Girl Scouts, and plans are in the works for collaborations with OCCC, the Film Education Institute of Oklahoma, and more. Partnering with existing organizations is a great way for The STEAM Engine to get the word out and reach a range of captive audiences without having to start from scratch. Jones is always looking for new partner groups, so If you know of an organization that works with kids ages 8-13 that would like to collaborate with The STEAM Engine, don’t hesitate to reach out.
A big part of STEAM Engine programs is showing kids how their educational activities are part of a bigger picture. “We try to bring in volunteers that are in STEM professions so that students can see the connection of what they’re learning to a potential career,” explained Jones. “We want to make sure that anything we’re teaching connects to a career path. ”Long term success of these programs is founded on kids being able to build relationships with role models and mentors who can offer them guidance and a glimpse into the end game – a STEM career.
There are so many kids out there who just need to be given a chance. A chance to build confidence through exploration. A chance to learn with fewer constraints. A chance to discover what opportunities are out there for them. The STEAM Engine provides outlets where kids of all demographics and circumstances can get these chances.
There’s still hope for creating a generation of kids with brains full of ideas. Are you going to help them get there?
Interested in learning more about The STEAM Engine has to offer? Follow them on Facebook or LinkedIn or sign up for their newsletter. You can also make a donation on their website.
Learn about another local STEAM educational program, Engineers’ Alliance for the Arts, here.