Collaborative STEM Kits to Inspire Local Students

Local Business, Nonprofit and School System Collaborate to Create STEM Kit for Local Students and Families

When Sarah Congleton, Lead Production Quality Specialist at GE Aviation in Asheville, learned that students begin thinking about whether they want to go to college in middle school, she naturally thought about how to more positively reinforce that decision for Asheville and Buncombe County students using science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)  education. Volunteer Engagement Director Michelle Bennett saw a need based on United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County’s community school work and connected GE Aviation with Buncombe County Schools staff around the concept of partnering to develop a STEM Kit that would serve as an inspirational project for local students.
“STEM is a very hot topic. We have STEM labs in our elementary schools,” shares Stefanie Buckner, K-12 Math Specialist for Buncombe County Schools. “It’s where we’re asking kids to build things and to go through an engineer and design process. For this project, we identified grade levels of need as 4th and 7th grade and gave GE feedback on grade-level specific standards for both math and science as they created the kits.”
For those who may not be as familiar with STEM education, it’s a curriculum based on four disciplines — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — that blends those subjects in an interdisciplinary and application-based approach. Many schools have integrated project-based learning initiatives using this method. Asheville Middle School’s Shark Tank project is a great example of that interactive, experiential learning style in action. While media trends have popularized and pushed STEM education initiatives in the last decade, 48 percent of American high school seniors are now interested in a STEM career according to ACT. In fact, back in 2009, the Obama administration announced the "Educate to Innovate" campaign to inspire students to excel in STEM subjects. On a statewide level, “North Carolina’s leaders agree that a coordinated, statewide STEM Education Strategic Plan with clear direction, support and goals is needed to ensure a workforce that is prepared for the high-skill, high-wage and high-demand jobs..built on a shared vision that leverages public and private resources in the most effective and efficient manner possible.” 
“Yes, sixth grade is the year that kids get turned on or off of science, so if we can hook them in earlier with something from the real world, then maybe we can help them better make that decision,” shares K-12 Science Specialist for Buncombe County Schools Brian Maccarelli. 

Reinforcing STEM Education in Families and Communities

While STEM learning is vital within the school curriculum, it’s also important that extracurricular activities and “informal interactions with family, peers, and community members also help to reinforce that interest and learning. Both the availability and accessibility of these experiences depends as much (or more) on the income level as the interest level of both students and parents,” according to the ‘State of STEM’ white paper by STEMconnector, citing research from writer Robert Putnam in his New York Times Best Seller ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (an informative read if you’re interested in understanding how socio-economic status and race have impacted education throughout history).
The focus on both family and community reinforcement in education is one reason these STEM Kits are meant to be done at-home as opposed to in the classroom. “I like how this is going to interact and engage the parents as well as the students,” adds Maccarelli as he winds a rubber band around a small wooden dowel for the small car that the students will learn to build through one of the kits. “We want that parent interaction. It sparks conversations around what else is happening in the school and what else they’re learning because maybe that’s not happening in a lot of student’s homes.”

Distributing 200 STEM Kits to Inspire Students in Buncombe County

200 GE STEM Kits will be distributed in a handful of Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools this winter, including Oakley Elementary and Montford North Star Academy, to students in 4th and 7th grade. Two different kits have been created: one containing a map with challenge questions, taking students on an adventure around N.C. Students will map routes across the state and use their math skills to calculate distance traveled. The second project is a car creation kit where students take on the task of learning to engineer a rubberband-powered vehicle using small wooden wheels, dowel rods, and rubber bands. They'll use the scientific method to hypothesize the effects of wheel size on distance traveled by the makeshift vehicle. Within each kit students will also receive a profile card designed by United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, featuring a GE Aviation employee, sharing their name, title, a deeper understanding of how their role helps support the production of airplane parts manufactured by GE and a few of their personal hobbies.
“We’re hoping that gives the kids some ideas around the types of things that they can do in an industry that’s focused on tech,” shared Congleton as she and Buckner sit analyzing the map of N.C. while walking through the questions in the kit. Buckner adds, “I don’t think the kids realize what we have here or what opportunities exist for them to be able to stay and thrive in this area. That’s also really helpful for parents to understand the major manufacturing that happens here and the great job opportunities within this field.”

Hands On Asheville-Buncombe We Care Experiences

The GE STEM Kit Project is part of Hands On Asheville-Buncombe’s We Care Experience offerings, which bring community needs in the form of projects to groups wanting a shared volunteer experience. These unique opportunities are facilitated on-site at the business, youth club, church group or nonprofit organization with education about the larger need in the community alongside an activity that everyone is able to work on together, producing a tangible product at the end of the project that helps fill a community need. We Care Experiences have included creating snack packs for middle school students facing food insecurity, personal care kits for homeless students, care kits for families made homeless due to domestic violence, and more. STEM Kit creation will now be a part of these project offerings.  
“We knew there was a focus on STEM during school as well as in out-of-school activities and wanted to develop a supplemental STEM kit so that students and their families could do fun activities together at home,” shares Bennett. “We aren't experts in STEM or education, our job is to engage volunteers and others around community impact through volunteerism, which is why we brought in both GE Aviation and Buncombe County Schools to help develop this needed project.” 
Maccarelli agrees, “Yeah, GE developed these really cool projects. United Way is providing the volunteer manpower to put these kits together and the distribution and we brought the classroom standards. None of us could have done this on our own.”
We Care Experiences are just one tool used by Business United to help local organizations and businesses make a meaningful impact in the community through volunteerism. Business United partnerships offer a variety of projects and opportunities designed to help students excel in the classroom and succeed in life — all while helping businesses integrate volunteerism as a tool to enhance overall employee job satisfaction. 


Get Involved:

DONATE to support the work of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County in filling community needs through opportunities like We Care Experiences.
VOLUNTEER: Consider allowing us to facilitate a We Care experience for your workplace.