Taking STEM Education on the Road

by Julie Barr on June 26, 2015 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, In the News, Public Service, Student Life, Travel

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The Spokes American team leaving Washington, DC: Simon Shuham, Brian Wagner, Jorge Troncoso ’18, Drew Bent ’18, Shadi Fadaee, Francesca Childs, and Tola Omilana.

On June 1, Drew Bent ’18 and Jorge Troncoso ’18 arrived in Washington, DC, after a nine-hour drive from Boston. The end of this trip marked the official start of their summer-long journey—biking across the country in an effort to rethink education as part of the Spokes America team, a collaboration with edX and Teach for America.

Spokes was founded in 2013 by two MIT students, Claire O’Connell ’14 and Turner Bohlen ’14, as a way to combine their interests in biking and teaching. O’Connell and Bohlen brought on Philip Daniel ’13, Titiaan Palazzi, and Jeff Prouty ’14 along with a few students at Harvard and one from Columbia for their first cross-country trip. This year’s team includes two students from MIT and five from Harvard. Together, they will bike across the country from Washington, DC, to San Francisco and along the way, hold 12 learning festivals to incite a passion for STEM education in children across the country through hands-on, project- and exploration-based teaching methods.

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Drew Bent ’18(right) teaching a computer science workshop

The learning festivals are located in mostly rural communities at schools, libraries, engineering spaces, and home-school networks for students in grades 5-12 and feature three different workshops. The computer science workshop shows students how to program using Scratch (the digital programming language that came out of the MIT Media Lab), the mechanical engineering workshop shows students how to build and launch model rockets, and the electrical engineering workshop shows students how to build a small robot. The Spokes team knows they can’t teach the kids everything they need to know about programming or robotics, but their goal is to get them excited about something they may not have been exposed to in this way before.

They’ve only held three festivals and already they can see the value in their work. “The most rewarding part of the journey is seeing how our workshops make a difference in the lives of our students,” says Troncoso. At their first stop in Hazard, KY, several students ran across issues with their robots and weren’t able to complete them. “When the students came back the next day,” says Bent, “we were surprised to see that their robots were working—they’d gone home and spent the whole night fixing the problems.”

The results they have had from the teaching portion of their trip is just the beginning—they are thrilled at the opportunity to get to bike across the country, push themselves physically and mentally, and see the US from a very different vantage point. “We try to show the students how dedicated we are,” says Bent. “We come with our bikes and we actually use the bikes in the workshops. It means a lot to them that we traveled to their towns from half-way across the country, especially given that some of them traveled up to three hours to get to us.”

Spokes is one of several student clubs and teams supported by the Edgerton Center. The team has gotten national recognition, with coverage from The Associated Press as well as many local newspaper and television channels. Follow their blog to see how the trip is going.

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