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From Newark to Camden —A New Generation of STEM Learners Are Preparing to Solve the Problems of the 21st Century

Fashion websites and Fortnite apps. Load-pushing robots and model solar homes. A technology-equipped running vest and a toy designed especially for children with cerebral palsy.

Are these the latest innovations from an engineering design firm? Or perhaps a Ph.D. project undertaken by a research fellow?

Nope. These are the creations of KIPP New Jersey students from Camden to Newark, who are taking advantage like never before of opportunities to engage in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) learning, inside and outside the classroom.

In Camden, KIPP Lanning Square Middle science teacher Bryan Pawling has collaborated with principal Bridgit Cusato-Rosa to introduce new STEM initiatives and equipment each year.  “I always stress that math and ELA are huge, but I want our kids to realize that STEM is really at the forefront now—and our kids should be competitive in those fields, too,” said Pawling.

KIPP Lanning Square Middle partnered with Project Lead the Way to introduce the App Creators curriculum which allows students to create their own apps. “The app I designed was fun to create—but also a little bit stressful. I learned to have patience, even if something doesn’t work the first time. It taught me to make mistakes and learn from them,” said Cheryska Scanes, an eighth-grader who designed an app that generated random fashion outfits for users for different types of events. KIPP Lanning Square Middle students have the opportunity to take one additional STEM elective per day, in addition to their standard science class.

Nearby at KIPP Whittier Middle, science teacher Ryan Weaver proves that KIPP New Jersey students have a natural curiosity for STEM. Weaver keeps a running list of science questions from students on his classroom board on topics that range from dry ice, to outer space. “At the end of class, if we have time, I help students answer the questions, or encourage them to research it themselves and share their answer. I want them to do the heavy lifting of the research,” said Weaver.

Weaver and his science teammates at Whittier Middle foster this natural curiosity through the Amplify curriculum that KIPP New Jersey has adopted across all our schools in Newark and Camden. Amplify encourages students to look at solving a single problem through different lenses. “During our unit on water scarcity, we used a fictional island that had difficulty accessing water” said Weaver. Students then had to problem-solve through role play as food scientists, engineers, and archaeologists to understand the problem and design solutions in their assigned role,” said Weaver.

Meanwhile, in Newark, students at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy are diving into the study of robotics, thanks in part to a grant from Amazon to start a FIRST Robotics team. The team started this fall with a team of 9 students, many of whom were also enrolled in AP Computer Science Principles. They use Code.org curriculum to acquire coding skills and spent their afternoons designing and programming their robots competitive—FIRST Robotics competition in February. Fatima Aliamer recalled the team’s early days of assembling their robot. “You start off with the basic supplies—so day one, we counted out the raw materials and labeled them. And then we asked, “Ok, what do we do now?”

“This is what we do now!” said Aliamer, gesturing to the gymnasium where the Panther Robotics team was about to kick off their second match of the day. For Aliamer, the challenges make the end result all the more rewarding. “It’s really satisfying to work with your hands and tackle a problem—to fix something. There was one day I was having trouble getting one of the robot components to work. And I was really frustrated about it. But then the next day, I came in and realized I plugged it in backwards! But I feel like the frustration makes the actual solution so much more satisfying,” she said.

Participation in FIRST Robotics isn’t just about battling other bots—it’s about cooperation. The goal is to build a robot capable of performing a series of actions in the bot arena that includes dragging, pushing, and pulling blocks to specific areas and parking your robot in a specific spot. More advanced robots also have the ability to stack the blocks. Throughout a tournament, students compete in pairs with other teams and are expected to find robots that have compatible skills and forge mutually beneficial alliances.

“Students get a truly hands on problem-solving experience,” said KIPP NCA’s computer science department lead Harold Brown, who coached the team along with Katie Ibeh this year. “You have to act like a true engineer, keeping a notebook of your process that you present to the judges. Start to finish, students own the whole process—if they fail, they need to try something different. It’s a full problem-solving experience for students,” added Brown.

Panther Robotics team member Luis Figueroa’s love of engineering started in middle school at KIPP TEAM Academy. “My fifth grade teacher Ms. Sigler introduced us to coding through Hour of Code—and I realized I was pretty good at it. When I heard there was going to be robotics at NCA, I joined immediately,” said Figueroa, who says that to this day he still receives advice from Ms. Sigler on coding and other projects.

Like Figueroa and Scanes, many KIPP New Jersey students discover their love for STEM in middle school. KIPP BOLD Academy also received funds from the Amazon/FIRST grant to implement new STEM initiatives. Sarah Elbery leads the science department at KIPP BOLD Academy, and in partnership with BOLD’s STEM Assistant Principal, Lauren Alcena, is making STEM a priority this year, investing in both teachers and students. Elbery and Alcena have introduced Hour of Code and brought teachers in the building together to have students participate in coding activities in one hour during the school day.

At KIPP New Jersey’s newest high school, KIPP Newark Lab High School, STEM activities are taking center stage as the high school carries out its vision of instilling “design thinking” in students as a framework for solving problems. Beginning in 9th grade, students enroll in a Design Elective, where they learn some of the basic tenets of design thinking and engage in several design projects and challenges.

Teacher-in Residence Amna Rahman teaches engineering and design at the school—switching careers from an engineering design firm to enter the classroom. Her students have designed a doll for children with cerebral palsy, and designed and tested houses with different levels of insulation and exteriors to test how well they retained warmth under a lightbulb that acted as the sun. “My students design everything they make considering their budget, whether or not their materials are eco-friendly, and using drafting paper to design their ideas at scale,” said Rahman.

That real-world thinking is what KIPP New Jersey’s STEM curriculum is helping foster in students, with the goal of preparing them to tackle jobs—even the ones that don’t exist yet. “If we can offer kids something that sets them apart, then they have a better chance at being at the forefront of what’s to come, even if it doesn’t exist yet,” said Brown. “We can instill in them a passion that will lead them to creating these amazing careers. I want them to be in the room, making decisions. I want them to have every opportunity,” he said.

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