This is a guest blog post from Keisha Nandalal, a parent of a student participating in the eCYBRMISSION STEM competition.
My son, Marco, has grown up trying to make sense of his identity. He embodies a blend of many great interests and qualities. He’s from a multiracial background. He loves sports just as much as he loves science–two interests he always feared were mutually exclusive. I’ve always felt it was my duty as a parent to ensure he has opportunities to work hard, pursue his passions and become whatever, and whomever, he aspires to be.
While his family has always supported his interests and encouraged him to explore his vibrant and diverse background, I have noticed that it has been in the company of like-minded peers that Marco has truly flourished. Thankfully, he has found an incredible group of friends in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM programs through the Army Educational Outreach Programs (AEOP).
Marco had expressed an interest in STEM in and out of school, so we were fortunate to discover AEOP’s eCYBERMISSION when he was in seventh grade. eCYBERMISSION requires students to form small teams to solve a real problem in their community. Using research and conducting experiments with team advisors, the teams work to find a solution, engaging scientists and other team members online as they work through their challenge. He particularly loved the mission challenges that related to robotics. What made the experience unique was that it’s entirely online, meaning the students work together, but their guidance and even the judging happens virtually. It really requires student teams to be proactive, take initiative and lean on each other—something I know Marco will need in the real world. With eCYBERMISSION, that time online is incredibly productive, even life-changing.
We had a feeling this experience was just the beginning of his exploration in STEM. The following two summers, Marco participated in Gains in the Education of Mathematics and Science program (GEMS). There, he worked with a team of students on an agricultural engineering project that addressed a real-world problem to better the environment. These experiences helped Marco develop a deeper interest in software, mechanical and civil engineering—interests that have stayed with him even into high school. We saw Marco applying and transferring his skills to other everyday challenges. It’s one thing for him to get a taste of problem solving when he plays Minecraft in his spare time, and another for him to discover how career engineers assess, design, build and test solutions to address real-world challenges.
The benefits didn’t stop there. GEMS taught Marco—always a linear thinker—how STEM connects with other disciplines, which ultimately helped him become a more well-rounded individual. For example, before these experiences, Marco had little interest in art or architecture, but after GEMS, he asked his art teacher to show him how to sketch designs because he understood the connection between art and engineering.
But most important, Marco felt like he finally belonged. Finally, through his teammates and mentors, Marco saw it was possible to embrace all aspects of his interests and background. Now, a junior in high school just outside Baltimore where we live, Marco is setting his sights on colleges with strong engineering programs.
To parents who may be unsure about the value of a STEM program for their kids, I say consider each of these learning experiences as a door opening. It’s easy to think programs like these are fun in the moment, or simply good resume builders. However, as a parent and a teacher with 23 years in the classroom, I can see how engaging, meaningful summer and afterschool programs make a lasting impression that shape our children over time. The intangible ways these programs enrich children’s minds and hearts are gifts that last a lifetime.