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COA's after school program engages kids through STEM learning

The COA Youth and Family Center, established in 1906, has been serving low-income families and children in Milwaukee for 113 years. The center is divided into three divisions: early childhood development, youth development and community development. The youth development sector focuses on pre-teens and teens through afterschool and summer programs, one being Kohl's Explore Your Future, an afterschool STEM program. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

On Nov. 8, which is also national STEM day, COA hosted a daylong expo at the Goldin Center. The goal was to spark an interest with kids, ages 8-14, while learning and perhaps even finding subjects like math and science fun.

“They hear the word science so they have a negative connotation, just because some schools still teach science in a very traditional way,” said COA STEM Program Director Lina Nguyen. “Whereas our program focuses more on the hands-on experience, I want them to think, ‘I am having fun, and it is STEM.' A lot of them don’t even realize that they are doing something academic when they are doing our programming.” 
The expo offered 18 captivating stations that related to STEM. There was a chemical reaction table that made fake snow and a shaving cream rain cloud station. Tom Schneider, COA’s executive director, said the expo was meant to inspire kids to think differently about STEM.

“The sort of myth out there is kids come to an afterschool program and play basketball,” said Schneider.  “People don’t have an image of an afterschool program being science, technology, engineering and math yet. You should see the excitement of kids when they learn to program a robot.”

Other than capturing the attention of kids, Nguyen said one of the major components of the program is equity, the idea that all kids -- regardless of race and gender -- have access to quality education.

“It’s really important for students of color, low-income background students and especially girls, just because a lot of girls from a young age are not directly told, but implicitly told, that they can’t do it,” said Nguyen. “It’s really important that we try and spark interest in STEM with all kids.”

When I attended the expo, there were over 100 kids mesmerized from their experiments. The room had a palpable energy that there can be endless possibilities within STEM, and that path can be one for everyone.

Listen to the audio story below.

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee