An Exceptional After-School STEM Initiative
The national non-profit, Boys & Girls Club, was founded in 1860 with the intention of creating a safe atmosphere for children to grow and learn essential life skills so that they may have successful futures. Fast forward to now, and the organization has incorporated a wide array of educational resources, programs, and opportunities to learn, including STEM education.
The Boys & Girls Clubs have continued to find innovative ways to create engaging, successful programs that truly prepare kids for future careers and endeavors. On top of this, the organization operates across diverse populations and communities, serving students from various backgrounds and continuously seeking out ways to create change across the communities that need it most.
The Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida, a branch made up of 56 clubs and about 5,000 students, is a prime example of the organization’s commitment to their community. With locations across the Greater Jacksonville area and into Gainesville, Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida, has created an atmosphere that fosters confidence, collaboration, and creativity amongst their after school attendees.
With the help of another local non-profit, STEM2Hub, Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida has successfully created a STEM program at thirteen locations, with the intent of providing the same resources to all of their clubs in coming years. With the support and expertise of STEM2Hub, resources and curriculum provided by Woz ED, and a dedicated team of teachers, The Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida has found a wonderful web of partnerships that have helped them reach new heights.
Wyatt Parlette met Frank Robinson from STEM2Hub at his first Robotics Competition in 2017. At the time, he was working with a specific club in the area that was in communication with STEM2Hub as they toyed with the idea of STEM competitions and programs. It was at this first regional robotics competition that everything clicked for Parlette and other key players. They saw how well the kids were doing as they competed against some of the top private schools in the area, how excited the kids were to be there, and how their parents were starting to see the opportunities brought about by technology. This is when they decided to expand the STEM program to all Northeast Florida Locations.
Parlette credits the success of their STEM program, in large part, to Frank Robinson. Prior NASA engineer and life-long proponent of STEM, Frank was pivotal in the day to day development of the STEM department. He showed up everyday with enthusiasm and determination, having total faith in the notion that kids will teach themselves if they have the right resources, understand broad concepts, and are encouraged to explore. He was right. In a self-directed after-school program like the one Boys & Girls Club offers, the key is to spark children’s interest by allowing them to explore and tinker with new materials.
Citi Teen Center
The Citi Teen Center is a Jacksonville Boys & Girls Club specifically created for children ages 13-18. This is where STEM programming was piloted and has become a model for other clubs to follow. Woz ED kits, introduced to the Boys & Girls Club through STEM2Hub, were first utilized at the Citi Teen Center. In addition to the Woz Engineering Pathway, teenagers at the Citi Teen Center have LEGO Robotics (and have competed in many competitions since 2017), TinkerCAD coding, Learning Blade Career Exploration, and Build, Fly, Code Drones.
With the help of STEM2Hub, the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida purchased several other Woz Pathway Kits to implement at the Citi Teen Center. These include Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, Animation, Mobile Development, and Drones Level III and IV. The goal for these two partner organizations is to create a streamlined program that will get kids excited and help them explore potential future careers. The partnership works like this: STEM2Hub provides Woz ED resources to the Boys & Girls Club, along with training and support. The Boys & Girls Club finds and hires necessary staff members specifically for STEM education. Plus, led by Kathleen Schofield, STEM2Hub will work with The PEAR Institute to collect data from the Citi Teen Center to analyze the impact of the program in real time.
The Citi Teen Center has become what they are calling a “Woz ED STEM-Tastic Boys & Girls Club,” and serves as a best practice for other clubs in the area. The hope is that this model will gain traction and help create a shift in branches across the nation. Collecting data will help get the ball rolling and highlight the impact of STEM.
Increasing Confidence and Inspiring Teamwork
When I asked Mr. Parlette how he’s noticed a shift in mindset amongst his community, he said,
“With our young people, and with young people in general now, it’s hard to start new things. There is this social construct where they don’t want to be made fun of, they want to stay within this box that’s been artificially created by themselves with each other. When they hop in on the robots or drones, I’ve seen their curiosity increase tenfold and they want to try new things. That’s half the battle. Being able to not feel embarrassed or silly if you do fail.”
Now, more than ever, kids are feeling the pressure to perform as they are constantly under a microscope with social media. There has been an increased report on online bullying, an uptick of mental health problems, and a heightened fear of judgment from peers. Creating an atmosphere that says, “Give it a try. It’s okay if it doesn’t work,” to celebrate failure, to show kids that trying new things doesn’t have to be scary, is what makes the difference in a program like this.
Each year the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida participates in a survey called National Youth Outcomes Initiative. The year after Covid wreaked havoc on educational programs across the country, the organization’s lowest score on the survey was “Peer to Peer Engagement.” This seems obvious. Children did not experience the previous level of in person interaction for a long time. When they returned to their afterschool program, not only was it an adjustment, but they were reporting higher rates of bullying, fear of their peers, lack of confidence in their own abilities, and a lack of desire to work with others.
Now, after a few years of participating in robotics competitions and building drones together, children at The Boys & Girls Club have showcased an understanding of teamwork, have grown more confident working together, and experienced the joy of collaborating on successful projects. They are more confident, more engaged, and more daring in their approaches.
For Parlette, and many others at the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida, his reason for putting in the time goes beyond his love for the kids. As he puts it,
“My reason is trying to activate change within a community. A lot of companies and organizations are turning away from the neighborhoods that need them most, we are turning towards them, trying to give people opportunities that they otherwise may not have.”
He uses an example of a robotics competition that two young men from a local Boys & Girls club participated in. These two young men from a non-profit afterschool program went up against robotics teams from private schools made up of five to eight students and held their own. Despite not being in the top three, these participants were thrilled to be there building robots. They recognized their own potential and left the competition with a newfound confidence, a “we can do anything” mentality.
This is what the Boys & Girls Club of Northeast Florida club aims to do; provide resources for children to dream big and give them a chance to succeed in a world where resources are not fairly distributed. To show the kids AND the greater community that they are just as capable and deserving of these opportunities as those with more access to resources.