Meet Danielle Olson: A Gique Advancing the Case for STEAM Education

by STEMconnector


What is a Gique? It’s a cross between “geek” and “chic”, a maker and creative problem-solver whose interdisciplinary interests turn STEM into STEAM. Meet Danielle Olson, researcher and PhD student at MIT and proud founder of Gique, a nonprofit that provides transformational, culturally situated STEAM learning for underserved youth. Olson says being a Gique is about using your passion to embrace change and create your dream job. Olson offers STEMConnector her insights and experience as an engineer, a dancer, a dreamer and pioneer in STEAM education, as well as research on how the arts are leveling the educational playing field in STEM.

STEMconnector: How does using the arts impact the STEM talent gap?

Danielle Olson: It’s no secret that scientific, technological, and economic innovations are the current and next generation’s chance to create a better world in which we solve problems together, drive economic development and improve lives. The skills in hot demand in today’s workforce include the use of interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving, technology, and communications with multiple media tools – all in addition to STEM-specific content knowledge.

The most impactful way we can prepare the next generation of scientists, engineers, technologists, and artists for the unforeseen demands of the future is by engaging youth in powerful, interdisciplinary educational programs starting in primary school. Fortunately, a new and exciting field of education is emerging where curricula are designed to expose youth to the applications of science, technology, engineering, art and design, and mathematics (STEAM) in the real world. STEAM, rather than just STEM, education focuses on student cultivation of the critical, creative, and participatory dispositions key to empowered, authentic engagement in both science and art, along with preparing students to think of ways that they can contribute to society as individuals.

The arts have been treated as a “cherry on top” in recent years. But research demonstrates that an arts education offers critical development opportunities for children, which include cognitive & social growth, long term memory improvement, stress reduction, and promotion of creativity. In fact, research findings show that if arts were included in science classes, STEM would be more appealing to students, and exposure to experts in these fields could affect career decisions. Gique believes that STEAM education affords students opportunities to envision themselves pursuing their “dream careers,” which they may invent for themselves. By highlighting how our artistic and creative energies can be a powerful resource in technical pursuits, students who may have previously felt alienated by the stereotypes which exist in technical fields can begin to develop their own unique self-images as well-rounded, passionate problem solvers, or giques.

There are three categories that aid in representing various perspectives of art integration:

  • Learning “through” and “with” the arts,
  • Making connections across knowledge domains
  • Collaborative engagement across disciplines

Gique piloted a 9-month-long out-of-school STEAM Program with students at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester, an inner-city in Boston, Mass., in the areas of science, the arts, and entrepreneurship by putting the theoretical framework, which underpins the necessity for STEAM education into action. You can learn more about this in the article we published in SciArt Magazine: sciartmagazine.com/growing-youth-curiosity-and-self-confidence-in-steam-with-gique.html

SC: What kinds of lessons do you offer students?

DO: Gique designs and provides free, hands-on educational programs and mentorship to talented youth from diverse circumstances in the Boston area and in California. We create a safe, positive learning community for our students and cultivate their curiosity & self-esteem through two arms of programming:

  • Gique’s Science Can DANCE! Community Programs – provides youth with a way to explore STEAM through creative movement and dance choreography. The program, which was aired by PBS NOVA’s School of the Future series, includes a keynote speech from a STEAM professional, an interactive lesson on a STEAM topic, and a dance workshop led by local dancers who are also scientists and engineers. By taking an integrated approach to breaking down technical concepts, we provide a unique mentorship opportunity for students interested in both arts and science topics.
  • Gique’s Out-of-School Time (OST) STEAM Program – is a 9-month long, weekly after-school program for middle school students to explore their personal interests in STEAM. This program enables students to receive long-term mentorship from innovators from around the world and participate in hands-on workshops and field trips. By the end of the semester, students gain a better understanding of how they can take an idea from concept to reality through innovation with art + design, science, and technology. Our After-School Program at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dorchester has included:
  • Creating MeconoMorphs (truncated octahedral structures) using recycled cards to learn math concepts
  • Building LED Circuits and using them to light up origami creations
  • Creating wearable art with computer-aided designs and advanced manufacturing techniques
  • A Brand identity and sneaker design workshop with Sneakers4Success and Boston-local entrepreneurs

In addition to these two programs, Gique has provided a wide variety of educational opportunities to people of all ages in the Boston area for the past four years. We have collaborated with a wide variety of organizations to provide educational programming including:

  • MIT Museum,
  • Harvard Museum of Science & Culture,
  • Artisan’s Asylum, and
  • General Assembly Boston.

SC: How can corporations that support a vibrant STEM workforce get involved in advancing STEAM education?

DO: First, corporations should stand with teachers and parents to fight back against policies that discourage interdisciplinary education. This may include, but is not limited to, policies which result in art, drama, history, and science class time reduction and policies, which discourage teachers from being innovative due to too much focus on standardized testing.

Second, people in power must use their influence to help give underrepresented groups more access to resources that can level the playing field in education. I had access to programs like FIRST Robotics Competition and MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science Program which changed my life, thanks to the generosity of donors investing directly in people of color by sponsoring these programs. However, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in these programs if I had to pay for them. That’s why Gique leverages the support of its sponsors to deliver life-changing experiences to students that help them pursue career dreams that they may deemed impossible.

SC: How is Gique measuring its impact?

DO: We have a structured process in place to design, administer, and analyze quantitative and qualitative measurements, including pre- and post- assessments, audio/video interviews, and external feedback (from program staff/volunteers and parents/guardians).

Specifically, for Gique’s OST STEAM Program, a schema was developed to identify, both broadly and specifically, what students learned and in what context it applies to their lives. Prior to each term, the program leadership developed several goals for student impact, with measurable indicators to assess each goal. Assessment questions were adapted from the Museum of Science Boston’s Engineering is Elementary program assessment model. At the end of the semester, students completed the same assessment in order for the program leadership to understand what deltas occurred and what the development areas were for program improvement.

While the quantitative data collected often helped to inform strategic decisions and content choices, the qualitative data showed how the program impacted students, parents, volunteers and teachers. Gique wholeheartedly believes that learning experiences should be fun, so asking these qualitative questions were critical to the development and success of the pilot OST STEAM program.

Gaining parent/guardian feedback served to be an excellent indicator of how excited students were about the program!

Danielle Olson, founder of Gique

At age 17, Danielle Olson was accepted to MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science Program. While studying for her bachelor’s degree at MIT, Olson founded Gique, a Boston-based STEAM nonprofit. Gique supports diverse learning styles by translating technical concepts through creative expressions such as music and dance, empowering underserved students to understand, enjoy and excel in STEAM education. Gique’s free workshops feature fun, hands-on lessons with sensory-oriented approaches for students, including kinesthetic learning experiences using dance and physical movement.

Olson’s inspiration for launching Gique stems from her experience in Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics Competition program, and from her mother who came to the U.S. from Cameroon with only an eighth-grade education before going on to earn her master’s degree. Olson is currently a researcher, Presidential Fellow and first-year PhD student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Visit Gique’s community of leaders and makers at http://www.gique.me/