En­gi­neer­ing 101, for kinder­gart­ners

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MICHAEL ALI­SON CHAN­DLER michael.chan­dler@wash­post.com

The chal­lenge for a group of kinder­gart­ners Satur­day morn­ing was not just to keep from eat­ing the marsh­mal­lows set in front of them but to turn them, along with a pile of straws, into the tallest tower they could build.

The chil­dren at Cedar Tree Academy in the Dis­trict set to work. As their hands got stick­ier, their tow­ers rose and fell. Nearby, pro­fes­sional en­gi­neers and sci­en­tists of­fered ad­vice about struc­ture and sup­port. Fi­nally time was up, and the mea­sur­ing tape came out.

One sturdy struc­ture with four walls that mea­sured 11.5 inches drew ap­plause, while its builder, 4-year old Kae­lyn Burke, beamed.

So did her mother, Ladeja Burke .“She al­ways likes to ex­plore and watch videos about how to make things,” she said.

The ac­tiv­ity was part of a “make-a-thon,” de­signed to en­cour­age the stu­dents, all African Amer­i­cans at­tend­ing school in a poor neigh­bor­hood east of the Ana­cos­tia River, to fo­cus their tal­ents as they grow older on build­ing bridges, tow­ers and gad­gets.

Na­tion­ally, the num­bers of fe­male African Amer­i­can and Latino stu­dents who pur­sue high­pay­ing jobs re­lated to sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing or math re­main small. Re­search shows that many stu­dents lose in­ter­est in the fields or con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ties by mid­dle school.

That’s why it’s im­por­tant to hook them early and let them know the kinds of jobs they could even­tu­ally pur­sue, said Rachel Wil­liams, one of the founders of Paige & Pax­ton, a Chicago-based fam­ily busi­ness that or­ga­nized the make-a-thon.

“Kids at this age, the world’s in front of them,” she said. “They can be any­thing they want to be.”

Wil­liams, a jour­nal­ist by train­ing, wanted to en­cour­age her daugh­ters to pur­sue sci­ence and math when they were young, so she cre­ated sto­ries about two puz­zle-piece char­ac­ters who lived in “Puz­zle land” and were try­ing to make sense of the world around them. The sto­ries of­fered mini lessons on botany or en­gi­neer­ing or math­e­mat­ics.

She also sought en­rich­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties for them, got a fam­ily mem­ber­ship to the lo­cal sci­ence mu­seum and ig­nored their pleas to goto gym­nas­tics camp. She sent them to sum­mer school for math three years in a row in­stead.

It worked. Both daugh­ters con­tin­ued to study sci­ence and math in col­lege. One daugh­ter pur­sued a ca­reer in fi­nance; the other is study­ing to be­come a den­tist.

They also be­came in­ter­ested in en­cour­ag­ing other African Amer­i­can girls to pur­sue math and sci­ence.

So last year them other-daugh­ter trio launched their busi­ness, Paige &Pax­ton, named for the two puz­zle piece char­ac­ters that Wil­liams cre­ated to teach her daugh­ters when they were young. They up­dated Wil­liams’s hand­made books and turned them into a brightly col­ored se­ries that in­tro­duces chil­dren to fields such as paleontology, botany and en­gi­neer­ing.

Their busi­ness also of­fers an ele­men­tary cur­ricu­lum and pro­fes­sion­alde­vel­op­ment. They work with Chicago Pub­lic Schools to pro­vide cur­ricu­lum for its ele­men­tary schools fo­cused on sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math (STEM) ed­u­ca­tion.

Dur­ing their make-a-thons, the trio aims to ex­pose chil­dren and their par­ents to the STEM fields and the po­ten­tial for jobs.

On Satur­day, while chil­dren were de­sign­ing pro­to­types with magic mark­ers and build­ing their tow­ers, Wil­liams of­fered par­ents tips on how they can en­cour­age their chil­dren in the tech­ni­cal fields.

Ebony Ger­ald, 25, brought her daugh­ter Jalaya to school for the ac­tiv­ity be­cause she wanted to ex­pose her to some­thing new.

“If she likes what she’s do­ing here, I want to find other things like this for her to do,” she said. “If not, I want to help her find some­thing else that she likes.”

Ger­ald said she be­came in­ter­este­din mor­tu­ary sci­ence through a sum­mer job af­ter high school. She learned a lot about the hu­man body and the busi­ness of death. But she did not go back to school and pur­sue it when she started hav­ing kids.

“I couldn’t fol­low my dream, so I want to help her fol­low hers,” she said.

COUR­TESY OF OS­CAR MERRIDA IV

Kae­lyn Burke, 4, made the tallest tower out of marsh­mal­lows and straws dur­ing a com­pe­ti­tion at her school, Cedar Tree Academy in South­east, aimed at get­ting mi­nor­ity girls in­ter­ested in STEM fields.

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