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STE(A)M Truck Rolls Into Local Schools to Energize Students

by Muriel Vega

By thinking outside the usual classroom setting, Jason Martin is making math and science education more fun — and equitable — for students in low-income areas. “It is inherently unfair when the zip code in which you live determines the quality of opportunities you can access,” says Martin. “This is due to an opportunity gap — not an ability gap.”

STE(A)M Truck is a blue/green van filled with tools, 3D printers, and much more. It enters a school to provide a 20-day supplement program to the school’s current science and math curricula. The initiative works closely with the teachers to maximize the time and provide as much engagement as possible. During the four weeks, the students get to build engineering projects with the truck’s tools and increase their confidence in a STEM career.

So far, more than 87 percent of students that participated in the initiative have improved applied STEM skills and more than 97 percent have improved cognitive skills, according to STE(A)M’s assessment data.

That success has brought several awards to the mobile innovation lab, including first place in a recent competition at collaborative workspace The Garage. “By winning almost 50 percent of the vote among some rockstar competition, we’re showing that we have broad community support,” says Martin. “Since inception, we’ve been working hard, pedal to the metal. We’ve never had the resources or space available to stop, reflect and appreciate all that everyone has done to help launch the first mobile innovation lab in the Southeast.”

What’s STE(A)M Truck’s pitch?

By driving a mobile innovation lab filled with tools and technologies directly to schools serving our poorest youth, we can close opportunity gaps too often predicted by zip code. STE(A)M Truck provides access to materials, community experts, and a problem-based curriculum and parks it right outside the classroom door.

How did you get the idea for the truck?

We needed a solution that would meet youth where they are, so a mobile innovation lab made the most sense. High school youth may be able to leave school and access opportunities in the broader community, but — for better or worse — elementary and middle school kids are stuck at their school.

What problem are you solving?      

Intergenerational and systemic poverty has led to a lack of workforce readiness, specifically in STEM skills. For instance, the 2013 NAEP (considered the Nation’s Report Card) 4th Grade Math assessment reported a 47 point gap between the percentage of white and black Atlanta Public School students scoring at proficient or advanced level.

By 8th grade, the black white gap widens to 51 points. Research indicates that memorable hands on and informal project experiences predict interest in STEM but children in poverty tend to have fewer opportunities to engage in such experiences. The lack of these opportunities are a contributing factor for this STEM gap. Importantly, the implications do not stop with STEM careers. Students who graduate without access to STEM skills are also less likely to have the problem solving and critical thinking skills necessary to be successful in a range of careers.

Tell me about the inside of the van. What are you equipped with?

It may be easier to think of STE(A)M Truck as a capacity building approach to education reform… not a single truck.  We now have five vehicles and plan for four more by the end of 2018.  Our short-term goal is to serve 4,000 youth a year but envision a mobile innovation lab, like STE(A)M Truck, in every school district throughout the country.

Inside our vehicles, we combine high tech tools, like 3D printers, CNC machines and laser cutters, with low tech tools, like bandsaws, drill presses and soldering irons.  But, more importantly, we bring community experts on board.  Our Resident Artists, Maker Mentors and STEM Designers make sure we’re tackling real problems, designing innovative solutions and building important things together.

Why take teaching outside the classroom? What are the benefits for the students and the community?

Actually, most of our work happens inside the classroom, during the school day, working side by side a classroom teacher! We bring only the STE(A)M Truck vehicle(s) and tools we need for that day of programming.  Think of our work as embedded coaching and support as kids and their teacher tackle real problems using real tools.  We work directly with students and their teachers to ensure that students are driving the work and learning to use tools and methodologies to execute their projects. Over 500 students and about a dozen teachers have completed our award winning 20 day program.

Stakeholder feedback has been highly positive: a local superintendent stated, “STE(A)M Truck is the most innovative thing happening in education.”

Early outcomes have been promising, with statistically significant increases in students’ non-cognitive skills and interest in STEM. Educators have commented that our approach “feels like real learning” and it was “the most fun they’ve had teaching.” I believe we can fundamentally reshape how teachers teach and what students learn.

How do you work with teachers to implement STEM education? Tell me more about the program you offer.

We just launched a bunch of new programs (go to www.steamtruck.org and check them out) beyond our original 20 day program. We now have program offerings that range from one day to six days.  But all provide an experience anchored in three strategic “levers”:

  1. Providing students with hands-on opportunities to make and learn through individual and team based experiences, building noncognitive skills and igniting excitement about learning
  2. Connecting students to community members with STEAM and maker related careers, giving them exposure to mentors (e.g., artists, industrial designers) and careers different from those they typically access on a daily basis and expanding their worldview about their future possibilities
  3. Equipping educators with the ability to shape instruction through experiential learning, enabling them to deepen and reinforce the learnings from the STE(A)M Truck experience and take them to more students, beyond those directly served by the program.

How is the project funded? Are you looking for additional funding?

As a nonprofit, we’re always looking for additional funding! Most of our work is a fee for service that is covered by grants, corporate sponsorships and philanthropic support. We’d love to have more corporate partners to help lower these costs for schools. And, we desperately need more vehicles- especially pickup trucks, box trucks and sprinter vans. Since we’re pretty good with our hands, we can take almost any old vehicle with some life left and transform it into a mobile innovation lab.

What recent accomplishments (including cool student projects) have you seen since you started?

Just this past week STE(A)M Truck won The Garage! The past couple years have been a wild ride — from being invited to the White House to the first Global Innovation Summit in Mexico — to winning awards like Moving the Needle from the Center for Civic Innovation to Atlanta Magazine’s “Groundbreaker Award”.

There are too many awesome student projects to list them all, but some of my favorites are: building a solar powered Bluetooth speaker, helping eliminate food deserts by creating mobile food carts, and helping a local teen and aspiring film director, who was born without arms, by building her a camera that she can operate with her feet.

What’s next for STE(A)M Truck?

Until every child has an equal opportunity for an excellent education, our work is not done.  So, we plan to scale and expand. Our three primary goals over the next two years are provide programming to over 4,000 underserved youth aged 7-15, support 200 teachers annually to more fully integrate a maker mindset in their classrooms and contribute to a transformation of formal education practice, and begin to replicate STE(A)M Truck in other communities, especially rural Georgia.

All photos provided by STE(A)M Truck

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