When I tell kids about Mindbender Academy, the weeklong summer camp where they build robots, make movies and design apps, I never talk about the science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) skills they'll be developing. At Mindbenders, we want kids to put down their textbooks and learn by creating and doing. Kids are getting the message—each spring, registration for the Frisco, TX, camp is filled within hours.
I'm passionate about helping kids discover the joy of STEAM because it took so long for me to do so. Although I have enjoyed a long, fruitful career in technology, in both the military and the private sector, I didn't know I had an aptitude in this field—or even consider college as a possibility—until my 20s. My family moved to the U.S. from Jamaica when I was 12 years old, and I struggled in my new school because the material was unfamiliar to me. During my high school years, no teacher or counselor ever talked to me about college. It was only much later, while serving as an information specialist in the Army, that I began working toward a computer-science degree.
I don't want our kids to wait that long—and neither do U.S. employers. The country currently faces a major STEM-skills gap, with 13 open jobs for every unemployed STEM worker. If U.S. businesses want to thrive in the 21st century, we will need more young people graduating with degrees in these fields.
That's why I personally recruit kids from underserved neighborhoods and help them apply for scholarships to Mindbender. Rather than discuss academic subjects they may not like, I inquire about their interests. Recently, a student told me she wanted to be a hairdresser when she grew up. I asked if she ever took pictures of the hairstyles she'd done, and she said of course.
"What happens to those pictures after you take them," I asked.
"They stay on my phone," she said.
I said that engineering allowed her to both take those photos and to store them. I could tell that she hadn't really thought of science and math in those terms before. A girl like this might very well grow up to become a hair dresser, but maybe with the help of a place like Mindbender, she'll one day create a new photo sharing app or become a chemist who revolutionizes beauty products. The possibilities are endless.
At Mindbender, we help kids discover those possibilities by giving them hands-on activities led by corporate mentors. Campers have designed microchips with Texas Instruments, learned film-stunt skills with The Movie Institute and designed cosmetics with Mary Kay. In June, 800 middle-schoolers, half of whom are girls, will once again receive guidance from area employers—including Nokia, Microsoft, CoServ, and the Frisco Police Department—and discover STEAM skills and new career paths they might not have otherwise considered. At the same time, our mentors will have the opportunity to inspire the next generation of professionals.
When it comes to inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals, the math is simple: cultivate young minds to love the sciences and everybody wins.
Guest blogger Peter Burns is chairman of the Frisco Education Foundation (FEF) Mindbender Academy and FEF board member, and business development and technical tendering manager at Nokia.