While some students might be sleeping in or watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, the children in the STEMnasium Learning Academy at the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School near Overbrook in West Philly are busy doing hands on projects involving science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
At 8:30 a.m. each Saturday, parents meet with STEMnasium’s founder Tariq Al-Nasir and discuss the progress of their children’s ongoing projects and lessons. Then at 9 a.m., after a nutritious breakfast is provided for the students, the program officially begins.
The children spend the morning and afternoon doing various activities such as learning the Mandarin language, programming software in C++ and Java Script and working on robotics projects for various competitions throughout the 48-week program. The day concludes at 1 p.m., also with a nutritious snack.
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Al-Nasir, a computer instructor at the Harambee Charter School,which is located at 640 N. 66th St. and has 40 years of roots, and founder of the STEMnasium Learning Academy, noticed a need for scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians in the American workforce after serving serving in the military, focusing on intelligence.
In 2011, Philadelphia regional companies had 64,000 STEM-related and finance job openings, but area colleges graduated just 6,000 people with those degrees, according to Campus Philly. Al-Nasier widens the numbers even more.
“Every year, there’s a demand for 120,000 jobs for people with computer science backgrounds,” Al-Nasir said. “We’re only graduating nationally, 40,000. There are 80,000 students missing. Why is it missing? It’s missing because we haven’t rethought the STEM initiative.”
He explained that during his global travels with the military, he noticed societies that did not lack an abundance of STEM related workers. This was not the case in the U.S. so, 10 years ago, he built the program on the STEM foundations of higher learning and was inspired to provide a place for students to expand their horizons and identities outside of a regular classroom.
"I could not believe my little baby designed this game and was able to go inside and tell me what she did by changing codes."
The STEMnasium program teaches students to find a passion in the STEM field and discover themselves as individuals.
“We teach children to identify themselves as a scientist, a technologist, an engineer or a mathematician,” Al-Nasir said. “And that’s how the program starts each Saturday. We start every Saturday with that component.”
The students rotate between different projects and activities. Recently, they have been focusing heavily on robotics and learning how to engineer robots for an upcoming competition. Al-Nasir correlates a different theme with each unit that the students focus on.
The STEMnasium Learning Academy accepts students from all schools in the Philadelphia region up to 14 years old. There is also a Pre-STEM program that works with students from ages three to eight. So while the curriculum is taught by a Harambee teacher and held at the facility, it is not only for Harambee students. That’s not unlike the rather strange situation you may remember from three years ago, in which the Harambee school cafeteria was playing host to an allegedly unlicensed nightclub.
Maurice Pollard Jr., 10, has been a student at the Saturday program for two years.
“My favorite thing [about the program] was building a robot and having confidence of me at the competition,” Pollard said. “That was a good thing. It was really good.”
Jackie Ball, 41, is a program assistant and mother of two of the program’s students. Her son is an eighth-grader enrolled in the advanced portion of the program, working on app development, which takes place at Temple University. Ball explained the importance of the STEMnasium program and how it has made a significant impact on her youngest daughter.
“For her it’s another piece of the puzzle. Normally, we wouldn’t get exposure as far as education is concerned. This [program] gives them a chance to express themselves in a different form,” Ball said.
Ball told her 7-year-old daughter Zora Ball that this program could take her anywhere she would like to go. Her daughter entered the program with no opinions or particular interests, but as the weeks passed, Zora developed an interest in developing a gaming app. She built a mobile gaming app at the age of six, and was among the youngest ever to do so, at least in Philadelphia, if not countrywide, as Technically Philly reported last month.
“When we saw the game, I was taken away,” Ball said. “I could not believe my little baby designed this game and was able to go inside and tell me what she did and changing codes. It blew my mind. You can say it happened by accident, but everyone is where they’re supposed to be. She created a game.”
The STEMnasium Learning Academy provides a platform for opportunities and experiences like Zora’s. It reflects Al-Nasir’s point when he said that the STEM workforce currently lacks these careers because regular Monday to Friday students are not provided with the learning environments to discover such passions and talents.
The program teaches students to be open-minded to new concepts and ideas, Al-Nasir said, and with that, they create their own identities, dreams and passions that can last a lifetime.