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Making the Makers: Pilot program, developed by A&M, gives kids at Neal Elementary tools to pursue STEM

Dr. Schlegel is using psychology to change how local children see themselves - as scientists and engineers!

By Aimee Breaux, The Eagle

Teacher, firefighter and professional athlete used to top the list of what students at Neal Elementary in Bryan wanted to be when they grew up. But in the past couple of years, the list has become a variation on “engineer.”

The difference between then and now is $1 million in grant money and a pilot program known as Making the Makers.

Making the Makers

Intended to target lower-income third- through fifth-graders, Texas A&M’s research team brought the program — funded by grant money from the National Science Foundation — to Neal, where around 96 percent of students are considered by the state to be economically disadvantaged. Since the district has realigned, the program has extended to fifth graders at Jane Long Intermediate School.

The Texas A&M team develops experiments they think will challenge and entertain elementary students based on the students’ curriculum. At the end of any given six weeks, students participating in a workshop could be doing anything from creating and printing a 3-D sculpture of an animal for a unit on adaptations to Wednesday’s assignment of putting together and operating a motor drill that digs up “oil.”

The premise is that students who are exposed to STEM concepts — specifically students who are comfortable with and intrigued by the concepts — are more likely to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Neal principal Juanita Collins sees this first hand. Each year Neal offers college scholarship money to students who are selected. Part of the application asks students what they want to do when they grow up, and since the program began three years ago, Collins says she’s noticed a familiar response.

“Our kids all said, ‘I want to be an engineer,’ ” she said. “Our kids would not have even known about that had they not had exposure to this. It really has just opened their eyes to what’s out there.”

The workshops literally change who the students are, Collins said. She said staff see how much students develop during their annual field trip to Texas A&M’s campus, where they present what they’ve learned to a group of university students.

Collins recalls one fifth-grader who was having a difficult time between having a parent in prison, failing STAAR tests and struggling to learn with dyslexia.

“This is a child who didn’t even want to speak to other people, and he is standing up there, teaching college students about this science project they did,” Collins. “I can’t even handle this — it just grows them as a whole.”

Of course, Collins likes to add, the passing rate on STAAR science scores also jumped by 22 percentage points the year the program came to the Neal.

From Bryan to all of Texas?

The pilot at Neal, the Texas A&M team hopes, is just one of many Makers programs to come.

The three-year grant funding runs out this year, just as the program secured $1.6 million from four of the colleges that are collaborating on the project at Texas A&M to start an institution. The money from the colleges of liberal arts, engineering, architecture and education would fund the expansion of the program and other hands-on learning initiatives for five years, with $100,000 put aside for local projects. In the meantime, Francis Quek, the visualization professor who is heading up the project, is crossing his fingers on some grant applications and promoting the project to anyone who will listen, including two Texas School Board of Education representatives who toured the workshop Wednesday.

With the board of regents’ approval, the institution will officially formed at Texas A&M, says Quek.

One of the first priorities is to make the pilot program at Neal scalable, says Quek.

“It will never work if you have to have an A&M next door,” he said.

Malini Natarajarathinam, an associate professor of engineering, is spearheading a program in a small school district near the border that tests water. The program tries to have high school students run a workshop every six weeks under the mostly remote guidance of Aggies.

She says the easy thing to do would be to have an after-school or summer program, but it’s critical, especially for poorer schools, that the lessons take place during the day.

“When parents do not know the value of that or cannot do that even if they wanted it for their children, it has to be part of the school,” she said. “This needs to be a constant immersive experience.”

First things first: Collins would like to see the program benefit all students in the third and fourth grade.
Only about half of the students at Neal get to participate in the workshop. She says the students who walk by the classroom where the workshops are happening are clearly jealous.

Jacob Vela is one of the lucky ones. His fourth-grade bilingual class participated in his favorite-yet workshop with Makers.

“You get to dig,” explained Vela, who also who noted that he would like to be an engineer one day.

Originally posted here.