The STEM Connect Reflection
Through the DiscoverWorks program I had the amazing opportunity to shadow at the STEM Connection in Indianapolis. The STEM Connection is an outreach program designed to engage children with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) topics at an early age. The program caters to students from K-6, with mentoring opportunities for older students. There are two main branches that the STEM Connection focuses on: after-school challenge clubs and events hosted at Moore Road Farm just outside of Indianapolis. At challenge club, kids are given tasks to perform, such as building a tower, while following general STEM techniques, such as the Engineering Design Process. The facilitator frequently asks questions to keep the students engaged and to help them make connections between what they are doing with their hands and what they are learning. In addition, a wide variety of events are hosted at Moore Road Farm. These range from summer camps to field trips to travelling STEM experiences. The farm boasts a spectrum of ecosystems which children can explore, including fields of crops and a garden. Trails crisscross the bordering tree line of the farm, providing a scenic environment for learning.
While I was at the STEM Connection I had the opportunity to walk some of these trails, exploring the different ecosystems, learning about the native animals, and discussing the scope of the program with the executive director, Vera VanderKooy. As we walked, she outlined the broad goals of the STEM Connection in the present and the overarching goals for the future. I was also able to attend a staff meeting, where Vera and her co-workers discussed some prospective opportunities to expand the STEM Connection’s selection of services and ability to tailor their curriculum to specific needs. Following this, I joined a facilitator at a challenge club at a local school. Watching this on-the-ground interaction between the facilitator and students allowed me to see the benefits asking STEM-type questions can have in encouraging students to think independently.
From this experience I have learned several things. One important thing I learned is that many grade-school children do not receive in-depth instruction in the sciences. At that level, the emphasis tends to be more on reading and literacy than on the sciences. While literacy is by no means a bad thing to focus on, exclusion of STEM subjects delays students from developing the critical thinking skills needed in higher education and beyond. Watching how the facilitator at challenge club slowed the students down by asking them questions and making them really think about the process they were completing was extremely revealing. As Vera said previously, STEM will be a part of many future jobs and it is therefore crucial to prepare students. Another aspect that became clearer through my time at the STEM Connection was the importance of positive role models for minority and female students. Most STEM fields are populated predominantly by white males. While many young girls and minority students have the capabilities to perform well in STEM fields, without role models they may not realize such a possibility is open to them. As a female in a STEM field, I find it encouraging that the STEM Connection is working to balance out the statistics across the spectrum of the sciences, introducing students to career paths they may not have considered previously.
Seeing the active role the STEM Connection is taking in engaging students with the natural world was heartening, especially in an era that does not seem to value the environment. The intentionality with which the STEM Connection is approaching challenges such as the disproportionate gender ratio and deficiency in science teaching at a young age was rigorous thorough. It was a privilege to be a part of watching students practice critical thinking skills through the challenge club activities and seeing how the STEM Connection as a whole is preparing to meet future challenges.