Teaching kids about science can have amazing benefits, but it costs money — which is what one small town in Ohio didn't have.
The city of Springboro operates their schools on a shoestring budget. With a per-pupil cost well below the state average, extracurricular activities in the district have had to be scaled back — including those related to STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
In fact, budget cuts to STEM education are a nationwide problem, and education cuts have a disproportionate effect on middle- and low-income families. All of which will contribute to the United States falling even further behind in STEM careers worldwide.
Luckily, a group of moms in Springboro decided to take matters into their own hands.
They started STEMfest — an annual science and technology festival run entirely by volunteers and funded completely by donations.
"[Parents could see] the limits of the school district in terms of both human resources and capital," says Karen DeRosa, a STEMfest volunteer and former communications director for Springboro schools. "They really wanted to bring more STEM programs to students."
The event, sort of a cross between a career day and a science fair, was put together in seven weeks from conception to execution and was a bigger success than anyone could have predicted.
"At first they wanted one large room, thinking they may have 10 or 15 exhibits," DeRosa recalls. "But they kept calling me and saying they needed more space ... they grew to nearly 30 exhibits their first year."
STEMfest, now in its second year, is officially a local phenomenon.
Exhibitors fill the high school gym and parking lot with interactive stations related to a wide range of science fields and geared toward students of any age.
"They can focus on activities for young students; we could have very complicated high school level, college level things; and we can have everything in between," DeRosa says. "It's really kind of a great family event."
From building with Legos to advanced robotics, music to finger-painting, STEMfest has something for everyone.
All of it is free and not for profit, and DeRosa says that seeing the community engaged with science and tech is a reward in and of itself. "When the organizers look around and see the place is full ... it's exciting."
The event also offers kids the invaluable opportunity to get hands-on experience with cutting-edge technology.
At one station, kids got to work with 3D printers making small handheld objects. At another, they learned to program basic robots. Since 3D printing and automation are industries on the rise, kids at STEMfest are engaging with the jobs of the future. And since STEM industries in general are some of the fastest growing in the United States, getting to work directly with industry-leading technology is a huge advantage.
According to Education Week, you can't start STEM education early enough — children are naturally curious scientists and engineers, and nurturing that curiosity has a direct connection to kids pursuing the vital science and technology careers of the future.
Karen DeRosa agrees. "We think that natural curiosity is so vital to tap into," she says. "And the traditional classroom and traditional curriculum can’t always reach everyone with the same level of interest or activity. STEMfest gives that opportunity."
Most of all, STEMfest shows how powerful a community can be when they're driven to inspire.
Springboro had to overcome a dire lack of funding to pull off STEMfest, and they did it because they worked together as a community. Parents, teachers, students, and anyone else who could spare money or time came together to create a uniquely engaging and inspiring event.
When an absence of federal money leaves gaps in education, communities have the ability to step up and fill those gaps. It takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to inspire them and help shape them into the leaders of the future.
That's exactly what Springboro is doing.