Rekindling the Spark: It Begins with the MLK Boys Academy

I am currently reading a book about telling stories, so I’m doing a little experiment with my blog posts. Hopefully, they will be a bit more engaging, or perhaps I’ll just learn a bit more about effective communication. I do use AI to help get things started and learn ways of stating things I haven’t thought of. However, I’ve done enough editing of the generated text to call this my own.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are credited to Sophia Timba

Recently, I was standing in the hallway of the SUNY Brockport chemistry building, watching a procession of thirty some students and a few of their teachers. They were taking part in the MLK Boys Academy, a program for inner-city students from Rochester to acquire life skills and explore various aspects of social and professional development.

My colleague, Carly, and I were tasked with hosting a one-hour workshop for the Academy, aiming to ignite their curiosity and passion for science through hands-on experiences. Since I recently started a Makerspace, “It Begins in Brockport” (IBiB), I wanted to incorporate makerspace resources. One of our recent acquisitions, a Maker Cart from TeacherGeek, provided all the materials we needed for this endeavor.

The TeacherGeek resources are amazing, and I felt quite prepared for the workshop. However, reality hit us as the students gathered in the classroom: the age range was vast, spanning from elementary to middle school. I hadn’t accounted for this diversity in my planning, and it could spell disaster for the workshop. The stakes were high – a poorly executed program could leave these students even more disenchanted with science than before.

Photo by C. Reed

Undeterred, I decided to rely on the teachers who accompanied the children. Breaking the children into smaller groups, teachers took on the role of manager for one or more groups. They put their trust in me as an educator, for they were leading an activity they had never seen before.

As the workshop progressed, I kept an open line of communication with the teachers. We became a team, navigating the varying needs and abilities of the students. Together, we fine-tuned the workshop content, ensuring it resonated with each individual learner.

The gears began to turn, both literally and metaphorically. I witnessed the joy on their faces as they saw how gears meshed together, moving in harmony. Simple concepts like clockwise and counterclockwise rotations became fascinating puzzles, engaging even the youngest minds.

Gradually, we introduced more complex ideas, like gear ratios and their relation to fractions. The older students started grasping the concept of mechanical advantage, and their enthusiasm was infectious. The atmosphere was alive with the spirit of exploration and learning.

As the hour drew to a close, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of fulfillment I hadn’t experienced in a long time. After nearly 20 years, teaching at a university is becoming routine, and sometimes I feel like I’ve lost the passion that had drawn me to education in the first place.

Working with the MLK Boys Academy rekindled a spark. For twelve years, I taught in Chicago’s South Side, educating students who hadn’t followed traditional pathways or who had encountered significant adversity as they sought academic and professional achievements. I forgot how much I enjoyed the formative years of my professional development.

Though I hadn’t fully emerged from my rut, this experience had set me on a path of rediscovery. I took a big leap of faith 13 years ago when I switched my research interests from what I was trained in (fundamental methods of electron transfer – yeah) to what I’m trying now (using digital fabrication tools to build accessible scientific instrumentation). IBiB plays a big role in this process by introducing engineering and scientific concepts to makers through creative play.

Sometimes, I worry that the switch painted me into a corner professionally, but workshops like this one help me think that I’m in the right place.

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