This story is part of WABE and American Graduate's Advancing Atlanta: Education series. For more stories, click here.
How do you close the classroom achievement gap between rich and poor when it comes to science and math education? An initiative called STE(a)M Truck believes you need to take the classroom out of the equation.
Victoria Ruffin and Anaya Witchett, eighth graders at Kipp Ways Academy, are working on an invention.
It involves a blender – the kind you make smoothies with – a bicycle and one of those bike racks that go over the rear wheel. Witchett says it took some time to convince her their creation could work at all.
“I was thinking, ‘How are we gonna make a blender work from a bike?’ It seemed impossible at first.”
But now, she and Ruffin are really getting into the problem, trying out different ways of attaching the blender to the bike seat, as STE(a)M Truck founder Jason Martin prompts them with questions.
For Martin, helping students to design a blender that’s powered by pedaling a bicycle is just a regular day at school.
The STE(a)M Truck is a blue and green van filled with things like band-saws and 3-D printers, parked in front of this Vine City neighborhood charter school. Martin calls it a “mobile innovation lab.”
“STE(a)M” stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The bike blender is part of a science lesson on kinetic and renewable energy. At another table, students are building a solar-powered Bluetooth speaker.
All this is taking place outside. It’s doesn’t look like a traditional science classroom, and that’s intentional.
“Some kids,” says Martin, “they will thrive in the four walls of a classroom. They will thrive with a textbook. I think most kids don’t. I think most kids need to get their hands dirty to make things. I think there’s enough real problems in the world; we don’t need a textbook.”
Maybe you've heard of “STEM” education: today’s popular emphasis on hands-on work with the hard sciences — all the letters in “STE(a)M” minus that lower-case “a.” STE(a)M adds art to the mix because of the creative solutions that can result when scientists and artists work together.
In its 20-day programs like this one at Kipp Ways, STE(a)M Truck works with teachers on their curricula, bringing complementary tech and engineering projects and staff to schools. But they also bring artistic projects and, sometimes, activities informed by all these fields.
The idea behind all of it is to bring this hands-on learning to schools without full-fledged STEM education programs.
“Take a student that’s (sic) going to a private school here in Atlanta,” says Martin, “and they literally are building their own computers. And then take another student, maybe from around this neighborhood we’re standing in right now, that (sic) may use a computer to do a Powerpoint presentation.”
By the time those two students hit high school, he says, the gap between their abilities will be precariously wide.
This school visit is a one-time approach, funded largely, says Jason Martin, through a grant from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement. He says this 20-day project, with STE(a)M Truck’s high-tech tools and paid staff, costs about $20,000.
Looking forward, he says he hopes to partner with schools on a more permanent basis, so that more students can have hands-on experiences like these.
Back at the bicycle-powered blender, Anaya Witchett's benefiting from that hands-on time. Though she says her favorite school subject is reading, she's definitely been inspired by the truck.
“I like to write a lot, but I really didn’t like science! I didn’t at all" Witchett says. "And then STE(a)M Truck came along and helped me build all these different items that I didn’t even know we could make. So, I’m really into science now.”
This story is part of American Graduate, Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.