Cheryl V. JacksonBlue Sky Innovation
Scores of children as young as 4 rolled eggs down a board, brushed sand from toy dinosaur bones and folded paper triangles to support the weight of bite-sized candy bars for lessons in gravity, paleontology and structural engineering.
By the end of the day, guided by science, tech, engineering and math professionals and students, several were proclaiming "I love math!"
That was the goal for Rachel Williams, who developed the characters and stories at the center of curricula to encourage STEM learning in ages 4 to 7.
"They have to see themselves as scientists," said Williams, COO of Paige & Paxton. She co-founded the company to teach kids about science and math, based on puzzle-piece characters she developed 20 years ago to encourage her own daughters' interests in math and science. Daughter Kelley, 28, is the company's CEO.
The company, now part of the WiSTEM program for women entrepreneurs at 1871 in Chicago, develops curricula for schools and conducts make-a-thons and programs for other organizations to get younger kids comfortable with STEM.
It focuses on children in the pre-kindergarten to second grade age group, like Nia Henderson, of Evanston. Henderson, at age 5, is practically a veteran at STEM learning. Her parents have had her involved in science programs since she was 3, to go along with swimming and ballet lessons, said her father, Terence Henderson.
"My wife and I set out to give her a well-rounded idea of things she could do," he said. "There's not the fear of science as they get older. I think about myself and by the time I actually started doing legitimate science, it was this foreign thing that I wasn't necessarily super comfortable with."
Also important to the Williamses, who are African American, is exposing kids to diverse STEM leaders. Volunteers Saturday included a scientist for Wrigley and Emile Cambry Jr. ⇒, founder of a multi-city network of business startup spaces and programs, both of whom are black men. Nia was among 40 students attending a Paige & Paxton STEM Make-a-thon at Oakton Elementary School in Evanston Saturday. Students spent the day on exercises and projects in physics, structural engineering and paleontology, while parents had their own sessions to pick up tips on how to position their children to best absorb STEM learning.
"They always think it's a white man in a lab coat," Williams said. "We want them to see that there are people who look like them. There are girls. There are people of color."
Early involvement also was emphasized during the IDEA:TE (Innovation, Design, Engineering and Art: Transforming Education) conference hosted by Catherine Cook School in Old Town last week. The event, in its second year, teaches educators about integrating technology into the classroom curriculum.
"There's a lot of missed opportunity. We're missing a lot of the good years. Our philosophy is to do this from the beginning. It's about finding ways to make connections with the curriculum of a preschooler," said conference developer JD Pirtle, director of innovation at Catherine Cook. "It's all designed around the school day of a 3-year-old."
The school has kids as young as age 4 sewing wearable technologies, creating furniture using laser cutters and 3D printers, and recording and editing their own music and other audio.
Such activity is particularly important for girls, as a lot of women choose their career fields by fifth grade, he said. "We want them to know about those careers and not automatically exclude themselves from them."
The Williamses began their business in 2012, after Kelley, with an eye toward entrepreneurship, encouraged her mother to dust off the characters that had helped nudge her into a career in finance and her younger sister, Jessica, a third-year dental student, into medicine.
The characters were featured in a series of books marketed to parents after Rachel and Kelley each invested about $30,000.
But it was educators and STEM professionals who were most responsive, said Rachel Williams, 56.
"We realized that even very educated parents really didn't know the importance of STEM. For the focus to be successful in the consumer market, we would need the resources to do a public education campaign," she said.
So, in addition to developing programs for pre-K to second-grade educators, the company last year began offering make-a-thons for the likes of the Girls Scouts and General Assembly. It currently works with 48 schools in 11 school districts, including Chicago Public Schools and others in Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and the District of Columbia.
Northwestern University sponsored Saturday's program, where students engaged in mock excavations of toy dinosaur bones from piles of kinetic sand and constructed clay models of what they thought the beasts would look like.
An exercise in physics, with eggs rolled from a board and cracking on the floor, led to the youngsters packaging the eggs for protected landings before looping to a lesson in the importance of wearing bicycle helmets.
"If we do an experiment, we want to show kids how it relates to their world now," Williams said. "We make sure it's relevant."
Cheryl V. Jackson is a freelance writer.