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2016 Jan

Chasing the Future

Four-year-old Andrew Davis eagerly ran inside his house after a trip to the library for a pre-k science program. With his older siblings watching, Andrew grabbed a sheet of paper and tossed it up into the air. As it glided to the ground, he pointed at it and announced, “That’s gravity!”

Tanya Davis has been taking her kids to Virginia Beach Public Library’s programs for years. She began taking Andrew to the science programs to learn to interact with other kids. “He loves the class,” she said. But what he’s learning is even more impressive.

“[Andrew’s] four, but he’s able to come home and explain concepts like why things fall on the ground or why certain animals sleep at night,” said Tanya. “He’s learning about the stuff that is important for him to grasp as he gets older.”

As technologies advance and workforce needs change, schools are incorporating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts into curricula for kids and teens now more than ever. Outside of school, local businesses and organizations are also ramping up STEM activities for kids, teaching new technology and concepts that most adults are still figuring out. These programs are both fun and challenging and enable kids to gain valuable knowledge that will inevitably shape their future.

Girl Scouts is one organization that has made huge progress introducing STEM fields to girls. As men often dominate these areas of study, girls can sometimes shy away from discovering their potential.

Camile Berry, chief operations officer for Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast, was an electronics technician in the U.S. Navy, but didn’t always believe she could pursue that career. Camile was interested in STEM when she was younger, but like a lot of girls, she didn’t consider a STEM career as her first choice. She explains that few girls are confident enough to pursue STEM fields. “So that’s really a huge gap when we’re looking at our workforce development into the future,” she said.

Through Girl Scouts, girls can earn official badges for different activities, like photography and graphic design. Locally, girls can earn STEM patches that are unique to this chapter. Partnerships with Google, NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction), and even NASA are helping girls build critical thinking and problem solving skills. There’s even a program focusing on aviation education, teaching girls how airplanes work.

Baillie McGowan joined Girl Scouts when she was just five years old. She loved the STEM programs, earning several patches and later leading younger girls to earn theirs. She even published an entire cookbook for diabetic children, earning the Gold Award, the highest award a Girl Scout can achieve.

“It’s been really cool to watch the STEM program grow through Girl Scouts,” Baillie said. “I get to watch my girls…learn about different technologies.”

Now 18, Baillie is a freshman at George Mason University majoring in neuroscience, but she didn’t always want to pursue that field.

“Up until a few years ago, I wanted to get into international relations,” she explained. Baillie had the opportunity to be one of 16 representatives for Girl Scouts U.S.A. for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she networked with delegates from all over the world and attended sessions for women’s rights and education. There she realized that international relations might not be what she wanted to do after all, but met a group of other students in STEM fields and discovered a new passion.

“[The UN Commission] definitely gave me that courage to go out there and be ambitious for those high-scale intense jobs,” she said. “I was able to meet people who gave me that connection.”

Recently, Girl Scouts unveiled a project called Digital Cookie 2.0, which helps girls prepare for their annual cookie sales. The project develops computer skills while also teaching girls about marketing, social media, decision making, budgeting, and customer service.  “It gives an enhancement to the traditional [cookie] program but brings the girl in the world of having a store online,” said Camile.

Through Digital Cookie 2.0, a Girl Scout can set up her very own online store and create marketing techniques to sell cookies. She can program games, quizzes, and more on her own site while learning about financial literacy and goal setting.

“When I talk to parents about their daughters in STEM,” said Camile, “I remind them that in our area alone in the Navy yards and shipbuilding and with NASA and the Navy, we have a fantastic opportunity for children to go into those fields.”

Local libraries are getting in on the STEM fun, too. For example, Norfolk and Virginia Beach public libraries offer numerous weekly programs for kids as young as toddlers. Options like UMIGO (yoU-Make-It-GO), KinderREAD, and Lego programs are getting kids excited about learning science, technology, engineering, and math.

Virginia Beach Public Library offers multiple STEM programs providing kids with hands-on learning experiences. Their pre-k science classes give children an opportunity to be little scientists, hear a story related to that day’s lesson theme, and even ask real scientists questions. This fall VBPL is introducing an Ozobot program for kids, too.

“Ozobots are little robots that fit in your hand like a bouncy ball, but they have optic sensors and respond to color coding,” said Katie Cerqua, VBPL youth and family services manager. “Kids draw on paper and the robots know what colors you’ve drawn with it, so it helps kids understand that coding is a language and the robot will do what you tell it to do.”

Norfolk Public Library has similar programs as well, all geared toward getting kids creating and interacting with new objects. Rather than listening to a teacher explain something, kids are actively participating and learning how things come together as a whole.

“If you don’t have interactivity embedded into your programs, kids just aren’t interested,” said Terri Raymond, youth coordinator for NPL.

Libraries in Norfolk are also equipped with play zones for kids, which include early literacy computers, games, and even an art studio. “While moms and dads are looking for their books, kids are engaged and the space is engaging for them,” Terri said. “It’s not a sterile environment.”

Since schools are so curriculum-based, it can be difficult for teachers to find time for the hands-on learning that kids crave. Further, curricula are usually designed to cover several chapters at a time, forcing kids to cram for tests and quickly forget what they learned once the next lesson has begun. Local businesses like Mad Science, Brickheadz, LLC, and Mathnasium focus solely on STEM to engage kids in subjects they might find boring or difficult to comprehend in the classroom.

Jennifer Marcus, owner of Mad Science of Hampton Roads, has a passion for getting kids excited about science. She takes her mobile laboratory to schools around Tidewater to host high-energy science projects at school assemblies and teach after-school science programs. Jennifer also offers Mad Science-themed birthday parties and other events.

During the after-school programs, kids spend six weeks actively practicing exciting science projects taught by a Mad Science instructor. These lessons include chemistry, space technology, robotics, optical illusions, and many others. Jennifer says that she’s seen kids who had no interest at the beginning of her lessons come away at the end of the programs excited and eager to learn more.

“A lot of kids are naturally very curious about science,” said Jennifer. “Our hope is that we spark that imagination and get kids excited…and maybe they’ll just see that learning can be really fun.”

Brickheadz, LLC, teaches kids about robotics, 3D printing, and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) programming, which allows kids to easily learn technical drawing skills used in many engineering careers and other related fields. Like Mad Science, Brickheadz also travels to local schools, but holds classes in their Chesapeake location as well, and also offers summer camp programs.

Vanessa Siedlecki, owner of Brickheadz, LLC, believes that exposing children to STEM opportunities helps generate more interest in those fields. She says her program also teaches kids how to work together in a team, giving each child a task to help pull together a bigger picture.

One of these projects includes working together to build a robot. Through this project, they understand the core values, said Vanessa. Kids learn that “…not everyone is going to build the robot, but everyone’s going to have a contributing part to the end result,” she explained.

Learning centers like Mathnasium offer specialized tutoring in math, helping students grasp difficult concepts. Daryl Gage, who owns three Mathnasium centers in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, says that not only do students improve their skills, but also their attitude towards math.

“When they do math, they’re more intuitive with it rather than relying on short-term memorization,” he said. “We’ll assess the students to know where they are in their math and build a customized learning plan with our curriculum to address the problems that student has.”

With the future heading toward even smarter smartphones, 3D printing, and technology we can’t even imagine, kids need to have a firm grasp of STEM concepts. Getting them excited at a young age gives them a head start as they grow up in a rapidly changing world.

“It’s important for kids to be able to see themselves as a STEM person,” said Camile Berry. “They need the role models or activities available to them so they don’t opt themselves out of great career opportunities.”

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Stephanie Allen is the publisher’s assistant for Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women. She’s also a proud Navy wife.



Coming up in March, local middle-school girls can attend an exciting all-day conference to learn about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at STEM4Girls, sponsored by the Virginia Beach chapter of American Association of University Women (AAUW). Attendees can look forward to keynote speakers and workshops designed to inspire girls to explore STEM fields and reach their best potential.

The morning keynote speaker will be Mia Siochi, who leads NASA’s nanotechnology research. The luncheon keynote speaker will be Christie Funk, a member of NASA’s aeroelasticity research team conducting wind tunnel experiments.

Workshop presenters for girls will be women working in STEM careers in Hampton Roads. There will also be a workshop to help girls explore cultural norms and practices which trigger phrases like “run like a girl,” as illustrated in one of last year’s Super Bowl commercials. A workshop for adults will help them explore how they may talk differently to their daughters than their sons and how it affects them.

The conference will be held at TCC Virginia Beach’s Advanced Technology Building, onSaturday, March 12, from 8:30 a.m.-4:45 p.m. For more information, visit virginiabeach-va.aauw.net.


Stephanie Allen

Stephanie Allen is the Content Manager & columnist for Tidewater Family Plus. She is a proud Navy wife and mom, a writer, blogger, success coach, and the Communications and Marketing Director for the Military Spouse Advocacy Network. Follow her blog, "Choose Happy," featuring lifestyle, wellness, and career tips for do-it-all moms. 

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