Joe Burke, of Westminster, is on a mission to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs to the youth of Carroll County. After his 6-year-old son Dexter participated in a competitive robotics program, he became interested in helping other families get involved, as well as discovering what other types of programs might be available.
“After it was over, a number of the kids … would ask, ‘when are we doing the next one?’” he said. “I also saw a news story about quadcopters on TV and rocketry programs. There are often programs in metropolitan areas, but I don’t think it’s always clear that there are programs in [the Carroll] area. I think the interest from students is there, I just want to connect families with that info.”
Burke has created a website, www.ccstemkids.org, to provide information for other families interested in getting involved in robotics or other programs — and he believes interest is growing — but who may not know where to get more information.
There is already a great deal of STEM activity in Carroll County, with at least 15 competitive robotics teams at the middle and high school levels, according to Rose Young, treasurer for the Eldersburg-based nonprofit Partnership and Inspiration for Engineering Education and Entrepreneurship organization — known as PIE-3 — that sponsors 11 of those teams. While PIE-3 has been in existence for only two and a half years, Young has been involved in sponsoring robotics teams for the past eight years and said the growth has been tremendous.
“Eight years ago there were just 15 students at our initial team at Liberty High School,” Young said. “There are now more than 50 high school students at teams at Liberty, Gerstell Academy, South Carroll High School and others.”
McDaniel College has offered a Summer Science Academy for the past 10 years, and recently began expanding its offerings from the initial forensic science course in response to growing demand for STEM programs, according to Jeff Marx, associate professor of physics and co-director of the academy.
“[Interest in STEM] certainly has been increasing over the years … There is a huge push, not just at the county level, but the state and national level, to improve STEM education for [kindergarten through college],” Marx said. “Two years ago, we decided to extend our offerings to include space rockets, robotics and an advanced physical science lab class. This year, we added an engineering lab which we call the science of building stuff.”
There are a number of other programs Burke listed on his site that are not yet active in Carroll County, from the underwater robotics SeaPerch program, to Zero Robotics, which allows students to program and control satellites on the International Space Station to the drone building competition of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation.
“A lot of the programs on the site don’t benefit me and my family directly, it’s just forward looking,” Burke said. “What I thought was interesting was that the two biggest industries in Carroll are manufacturing and agriculture. Robotics are used in manufacturing obviously and in agriculture, drones can be used to survey farmland, so I think there is definitely some synergy there.”
While many of these programs can be costly, Young said there are grants and other sources of funding available. Zero Robotics is free for any team of five high school or middle school aged children who have an adult who is willing to mentor and coach them, and that, Young said, is really the limiting factor for STEM programs in Carroll.
“It’s the mentors that are key,” she said. “I get emails every day from parents asking, ‘How can I get my kids involved?’ I turn around say, ‘Are you willing to coach? Are you willing to mentor?’”
PIE-3 has become like a small business in terms of fundraising and communications for the teams it sponsors, and Rose said they are always looking for team coaches, accountants, web people and people who can volunteer time for virtually any skill that a small business would need. If someone wanted to form a SeaPerch team, for instance, PIE-3 would be happy to help them and allow them to utilize PIE-3’s nonprofit account, so long as there were mentors who would step up and do the work.
By getting the information about existing and potential STEM programs out to families in Carroll, Burke said he hopes to entice more residents to step up and get involved in such programs, to build a homegrown culture of STEM youth programs that will benefit his family as well as others for years to come.
“It seems that while Westminster hosts a lot of things, most of the participants come from outside of Carroll County. One of my goals is to try to increase participation from Carroll County,” he said. “I think my son would probably like to get into these as he gets older, I just think it’s a big win for the community and the county to have these available.”