Delaware STEAM Academy’s key to engaging kids with an early tech education? Fun — bright colors, animations, AI training models based on a racing game with cartoon turtles.
“The ultimate problem for most classes is getting kids interested,” said Michael Hutts, head coach at Delaware STEAM Academy. “For us, the hardest thing is getting the kids to settle down and focus because they’re so excited.”
Delaware STEAM Academy is a Newark-based tech education org that offers machine-learning programs using Scratch, Micro.bit, Raspberry Pi, Python and smart devices technologies for students of all grade levels. Classes are offered throughout the year, and Delaware STEAM Academy is putting on an intensive virtual summer camp from June through August. The summer camp has multiple class times and module options that vary depending on your child’s age and specific interests.
Delaware STEAM Academy was founded in 2017. The organization aims to integrate machine learning knowledge into children’s K-12 education to lay the groundwork for a future in technology or an enhanced skill set that can be applied to any discipline, said Dr. Jerry Xiao, the director of Delaware STEAM Academy.
Dr. Xiao has spent decades conducting education and scientific research in different countries, including China, Singapore, Ireland and the United States. Working around the world exposed him to different educational philosophies and motivated him to get involved with K-12 education in the U.S. He wanted to create a program that combines the foundation-focused teaching style of Chinese education and the creativity often found in American education, leading to the establishment of the Delaware STEAM Academy.
The virtual classes Delaware STEAM Academy began offering as a result of the pandemic allowed the organization to teach students from 13 different countries, including England, Spain, South Africa, Japan and Korea.
"During the project-based learning process, students learn more than just coding. They learn how to solve real problems and develop critical thinking."
To engage all students, no matter their background, Delaware STEAM Academy employs project-based learning, Xiao said.
“During the project-based learning process, students learn more than just coding. They learn how to solve real problems and develop critical thinking,” he added.
At the end of each class, students have a final project that is completely theirs to brainstorm and develop. Projects are built into the organization’s curriculum as well, including engaging prompts like building a smart home, uploading photos of your pet and developing a program to guess whether faces are happy or sad.
In line with the organization’s dedication to providing real-life examples, Principal Software Engineer Chris Wright developed the AI Code 101 Platform for Delaware STEAM Academy. The educational web platform hosts the technology to allow users to practice and learn machine learning in a fun and easy way.
With AI Code 101, students can create text, audio, image and chatbot-based projects. The platform walks users through the four steps of developing an AI model: creating labels and terms; training your model; testing your model and applying your model.
“When we developed this, we wanted the students to engage with everything individually, so that we weren’t just teaching them what AI is,” Wright said. “We weren’t just having them make games and we weren’t just having fun. We were also letting them experience what an engineer who’s working with AI would do during their typical day-to-day.”
When Kedan, a sixth grader, started taking one of Delaware STEAM Academy’s after-school programs about 18 months ago, he wasn’t super interested in coding, he said. Since then, he’s taken multiple courses with the organization.
“It’s a nice accomplishment to have learned more about coding,” he said. One of his favorite projects was a riddlemaster he created with Scratch. Users had to answer the riddles that popped up correctly for the model to work.
Kedan’s parent Fei said the care Delaware STEAM Academy takes with the kids has always stood out.
“For online classes, it can be difficult to manage, but the instructor is always very patient and energetic with the young kids,” she said. She added that Delaware STEAM Academy makes sure not just to ask for parent feedback, but to apply their suggestions so their kids get the best education possible.
Hutts said he always looks for personable candidates to teach as STEM coaches, not necessarily the most technically skilled. It’s important to the organization that the kids are actually engaged.
As a teacher working with the kids, Hutts said Delaware STEAM Academy is not just providing its students with the skill of coding, but a new way of approaching problems.
“The mindset that goes into programming is the most critical thing about learning this skill,” he said. “It’s the ability to break down everything into these little programmatic steps that they can apply to everything. That way of thinking really fosters creativity and is a huge part of our program and something students can use for the rest of their lives.”-30-