There is a certain expression that spreads across a young face when a difficult concept has finally taken root in their mind. It starts in the eyes, when a befuddled squint widens into a focused gaze, and the corners of pursed lips give way to a bright, toothy grin. At the Square Root Academy in Sacramento, Calif., these moments are not uncommon as students hunker over circuit boards and solder, wires and motors, batteries and laptops.
But without the nonprofit academy, these experiences might never have existed at all, because these kids go to schools without strong science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. It takes a team of dedicated volunteers to close the knowledge gaps and give them the tools to build some truly incredible things.
Last Saturday, Dec. 10, roughly 20 students and six volunteers gathered in a large room at John H. Stills Middle School to close out the semester with an annual hackathon, where they built prototypes that could one day solve real-world problems, like a boat that senses and scoops garbage from the ocean’s surface or a car that senses and sucks up air pollutants.
Group founder Nicholas Haystings grew up in Sacramento’s Meadowview area nurturing his own interest in STEM, but said programs just didn’t exist. His own drive to become a mechanical engineer led him to California State University, Sacramento — and to the cohorts behind the nonprofit.
“We want to make sure that we grasp all of the students the need [the program]," he said. "We come to the areas that have no existing STEM program and we make sure that the kids have that same opportunity that more affluent kids have,” he said.
The upstart academy focuses its energy on reaching out to kids between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, students interested in learning about coding, electronics, robotics and a slough of other tech-centric curriculum. What’s more is that the program, which meets on Saturdays from September to December, is completely free to its students.
Saturday morning, students huddled over a mass of sensors, wires and circuit boards with a concentration more typical of a college classroom. They didn’t need much redirecting, as kids of their age often do, they just wanted their particular projects the way they envisioned them on paper.
The emphasis on project-based learning helps to keep them engages, explained Haystings, who advocates for laying the groundwork in theory and then bridging theory with real-world application.
“These projects are completely from their own minds. Normally we will have some sort of guidelines for them to build, and then once they finish our worksheets, they go on to their own individual projects,” he said. “Based on these projects that they have been building right now, they have a lot of interest in environmental projects. That seems to be where this next generation is going and taking technology.”
Journey Ashford was one of the kids behind a remote car meant to detect and vacuum carbon dioxide from the air. A maze of wires connected sensors and a pump to an electric motor that propelled the device around the room in a zigzag pattern.
“It gives children a chance to work with something that they are really interested in, because kids like messing with everything. You give them a DC motor, and wires and a battery, they’ll figure out what to do with it,” she said.
Ashford, and her brother Jonah, are both interested in science and technology fields, but she is more concerned with what she has learned in school about ozone pollution and its effects on the planet.
“I don’t want this to be a world where we have to live in constant fear that we are going to die,” she explained about her group’s project.
To academy co-founder Theodore Mponte the projects like the ones brought to life during the hackathon are just a few of the ideas that can take shape when students are given the tools to investigate new things.
“We just saw a real niche demographic that mirrored us and what we wanted at those ages. We never had anything like that,” Mponte said. “It just shows how brilliant students are regardless of their age, regardless of where they are from …”
He, like Haystings, did not grow up with STEM as part of his learning experience.
Mponte said the idea for a nonprofit that puts youth and their families in touch with the science and technology programs started as an idea between college friends, but is quickly blossoming into a program with the potential to reach several area schools. The groups is currently in talks to start weekend programs with three in the Sacramento area.
“It was kind of a journey for us,” Haystings said." A lot of the people I’m working with in this room, we all met each other through other volunteer classes — whether it was working with the National Society of Black Engineers, volunteering for other hackathons, helping teach kids STEM in other ways — it’s all about having the right team and the right skill set with you because this is definitely a joint operation."
But the benefits of the Square Root Academy stretch beyond the students; it also engages the community. Parents, guardians, grandparents are all updated on the work their students are doing each weekend.
“Outside of being engaged with our students, we also make sure to take personal stake in our community and make sure that we involve the parents, guardians, grandmothers, any and every one that we can get involved that are in these children’s’ lives to make sure we know them and they know us too,” Haystings said.
Though the fall semester came to a close with the final group presentation Saturday, enrollment for the semester beginning Jan. 28 opens on Dec. 19. Haystings said volunteers are welcome to reach out and get involved.