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“Eradicating STEM deserts throughout America” plus informal STEM grant from Battelle coming soon

Editor’s note:
Today’s conversation features the engineer-educator behind a Central Ohio program awarded funding from the Battelle STEM Grant Program. The application for this grant opens on Friday, February 1st, 2019. If you manage an informal (out of classroom) STEM program where students learn about STEM, sign up here to be notified. Update: The application launched on Friday, apply here.

The best teachers constantly search for better ways to reach their students. Many educators design their own curriculums, often based on theories, experience (their own and others’) and intuition. But one central Ohioan has combined his childhood love for science-fiction stories and an adult passion for technology education into STEAM opportunities for young people, many who are underserved.

Several years ago, engineer-educator Maurice Womack co-founded SIMPLR, which provides four-hour STEAM lab sessions to youth in Columbus. The original target was high-schoolers, but, in an effort to reach students earlier, the emphasis shifted to K-8. In 2017, Womack also opened the SIMPLR STEAM Playground in Gahanna, Ohio, to provide youth access to emerging technologies, such as drones and 3D printing.

In addition, Womack recently launched OASIS, an effort to eradicate STEM deserts throughout America through hands-on, online learning. He recently gave us details on all of these projects:

Q: Tell us about your background in engineering and education.

A: I’ve been a mechanical engineer for more than 15 years. I’ve worked at Battelle, MS Consultants and the U.S. Department of Defense. Outside of my work as an

engineer, I have been heavily involved with getting more youth interested in STEM fields.

My educational interest in STEM began during my time as an adjunct instructor of engineering at Columbus State Community College. I found that many of my students lacked a passion for engineering and simply were taking classes because of the “money” potential of the career. This attitude toward engineering was drastically different from my own as a young person.

Upon further reflection, I realized that, as a child, I knew I wanted to be an engineer because I was passionate about “creating the future.” This passion was born out of my desire to build and create the technology that was present in the science fiction characters and stories that I loved such as Star Trek, Transformers and Star Wars. So, I began to use those stories (and others) to teach engineering principles and concepts.

Q: How did the idea for SIMPLR come about?

Applications for the Battelle STEM Grant Program will open Friday. Sign up here.

A: SIMPLR was born out of the lessons that I taught at the college level. We thought, “How can we inspire youth to love engineering before they get to college?”

We knew that inspiration was the key to helping them persist through harder coursework to obtain a STEM-related degree. SIMPLR — an acronym for Spatial-Intelligence, Imagination, Making, Pepakura (paper craft), Literacy and Rubik’s Cube — used a curriculum that tied STEM learning to science fiction and comic book characters and stories.

For example, youth would build a replica of the R2-D2 droid from Star Wars to learn about robotics and use Iron Man to explore the engineering design process. The goal was to inspire kids to love STEM (as I did as a child) by connecting it to the stories and characters that they loved.

Eventually, we began to focus on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, drone technology and 3D printing as a way to cultivate this inspiration. (For more information, visit simplrstem.com/)

Q: Tell us about the SIMPLR STEAM Playground — what goes on there?

A: The SIMPLR STEAM Playground is a makerspace for kids. It’s located in Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. We use project-based learning to teach kids STEAM and to help them learn to use the 3D printers, the Cricut cutting machine and other digital fabrication tools.

Projects include creating a chess set and learning to pilot a drone. Badges and points are awarded for completing projects, and those points are tallied and displayed on a leaderboard. Ultimately, it’s a playground for creativity and making — a place where kids can interact with other like-minded youth.

Q: Lately, has the mission of SIMPLR changed?

A: The mission hasn’t changed so much as it has evolved. Our goal has always been to “teach kids STEM” in a fun and engaging way with an aim to inspire. However, we have become more intentional about what that means from a mission perspective.

Our mission is to eradicate STEM deserts through what we now call OASIS — that is, Opening Access to STEAM in Informal Settings. We’ve also evolved the tools that we use to accomplish the mission, which is where OASIS comes into play.

Q: Tell us more about OASIS.

A: OASIS provides hands-on, video-led STEAM labs for grades K-8. It is the evolution of our service work in STEM education into a STEM education product that is scalable and expandable.

From the beginning, our goal was to reach as many youth as possible regardless of their location and socioeconomic status. OASIS allows us to do that. We wanted to maintain the hands-on component of what we taught but leverage video and logistics to scale our reach and amplify our expertise.

We handle the content delivery via recorded video and ship materials (drones, robots, etc.) directly to a school’s/organization’s location so that students can follow along with in-class activities.

Our aim is to also ease teacher burden as much as possible. (For more information, visit https://oasismatters.com/)

Q: Do you have plans to possibly expand OASIS in the future, or try to reach out to youth in a different way?

A: The goal with OASIS was always to expand. The format allows us to reach youth anywhere. We’re currently piloting OASIS labs in several school districts here in Ohio, and we’ll soon begin piloting with a large charter school network in Los Angeles in early 2019.

We’re also in talks with numerous districts, of varying sizes and locations, to begin using our labs in the near future.

Q: How has funding from Battelle and other organizations impacted your mission and your ability to deliver it? How many youth have you been able to serve?

A: We have received funding from Battelle, Honda R&D and AEP Ohio, but Battelle has been our biggest supporter by far.

Battelle’s funding has helped us to imagine, develop and deliver quality and sustained STEAM labs to youth in underserved areas of Columbus. From the beginning, Battelle has believed and supported our mission to reach as many youth as possible using our curriculum — the organization has been a wonderful partner in many respects. The funding from Battelle has allowed us to reach over 700 youth with year-long STEAM learning/experiences.

As a former research engineer at Battelle, I was already familiar with the charitable work the organization has done here in central Ohio.

Q: What advice would you give others who might have dreams of developing their own innovative curriculum with a STEM or STEAM emphasis? How should they go about it, based on your experience?

A: Always seek to inspire, first and foremost. Most, if not all, of the scientists, engineers, inventors and technologists whom I know of were inspired first to build and create — the drive follows the inspiration.

Second, keep the educators in mind. They’re the ones delivering and using the content. Make sure it doesn’t add to the considerable burden most teachers already bear. Remember that there is no learning without teaching — the two are inseparable.

Finally, make sure there is an element of play incorporated into your curriculum. We strongly believe, as education-reform advocate Tony Wagner says, that play leads to passion leads to purpose.

 

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