Odyssey of the Mind is a decades-old after-school design and building competition that still can get kids excited. The students behind ‘Team ?’ say it’s better than school.
Inside a bright blue wood shop in University City that’s part of the Department of Making + Doing hacker space, two Masterman Middle School students on Team ? (pronounced ‘Team Wha’) learn how to use a table saw for the first time. They’re preparing for the regional competition, where they’ll compete against hundreds in envisioning, designing and building a solution to a provided problem.
Michael Darfler, who helps to run the practices, supervises the students. He’s the program manager at the DMD, which is focusing on youth engagement in a storefront at the 3711 Market Street University City Science Center building. It’s a place where students can experiment with using power tools and high-tech equipment like laser cutters and 3D printers donated by NextFab Studio, the celebrated makerspace that outgrew this space in late 2012 and moved to a new 21,000 square foot building on Washington Avenue in South Philly.
DMD hosting the Masterman Odyssey of the Mind team is just one example of how tech groups are aiming to support hands-on, STEM education for Philadelphia youth. There is no shortage of examples of efforts started by existing technical institutions or members of the local technology community.
Here are some of them:
- Tracey Welson-Rossman, a marketing vice president at suburban mobile development company Chariot Solutions, is growing TechGirlz, a nonprofit that runs programming classes for girls.
- Devnuts, the Northern Liberties coworking space that houses dev firm Jarvus, hosts regular hack nights that often welcome high school students and other young people hoping to find tech careers.
- Startup Corps is the half-decade-old program teaching entrepreneurship and technical skills to Philadelphia high school students.
- Public Workshop‘s TinyWPA is a program for using the building trades as a way for empowerment among youth and regularly ties its programming
- Drexel students teach computer science to West Philly middle schoolers.
- NextFab Studio hosts students who are learning about design and fabrication.
- Comcast sponsors Central High School’s robotics team
- Global skills-training group Girl Develop It, which focuses on getting more women into IT careers, has one of its largest and most active chapters in Philadelphia and has become a pipeline for new talent to local firms.
It’s an effort to get more students thinking about STEM, but it’s also a way that the tech scene can give back to the community.
And for the students, what’s so special about these kinds of programs?
One of the Odyssey team members, wearing a custom sweatshirt he screenprinted at DMD, explains it like this: at school, there is only one right answer.
At Odyssey, “Every answer is right.”