STEM Fest delivers cutting-edge education

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, August 21, 2019

LAPLACE — The St. John Community Center was packed with virtual reality headsets, a flying drone, dancing robots, handmade racecars, an outdoor rocket and so much more at Saturday’s Inaugural STEM Fest, providing a preview for the cutting-edge educational experiences coming to local families.

St. John STEM Magnet students British Stampley and O’Neal Oubre were among those to attend the event, which saw participation from students in kindergarten through high school.

Oubre, a digital design student, enjoyed crafting a battery powered turbine car, while Stampley explored robotics and lava lamps stations.

Glen Chenier, STEM school principal, said some teachers opted to give students extra credit to attend STEM Fest, which in many ways mirrored the technology and health pathways offered on campus.

“We want to help students understand that you may be learning it in a classroom, but it extends beyond, Chenier said. “Here they have drone flying, car building and a lung experiment. It’s a huge variety making sure all the components of STEM, the science, technology, engineering and math, are covered.”

Other activities included but were not limited to structure building, a Minecraft creativity station, ecological demonstrations and a chocolate chip cookie “excavation” site.

Kamille Hayes looks up while playing with magnets at the Inaugural STEM Fest.

STEM Fest was a collaboration between STEM NOLA, St. John United Way and the St. John Department of Health and Human Services. According to Parish President Natalie Robottom, STEM Fest successfully engaged the community and set the stage for 10 annual St. John STEM Saturdays, each of which would focus on a specific industry.

“We wanted to open it up to the entire community,” Robottom said. “We have found industry sponsors, and what we would like to do is have STEM St. John 10 Saturdays out of the year. There’s stuff they do with ports. There are things they do with refineries and green energy.”

Marathon, RTC and other community partners had booths and STEM Fest and will continue supporting children in the community, Robottom said. She was most excited by an exhibit featuring a levee demonstration to educate children on water infrastructure.

Coordinator Tracy Mackie, wife of STEM NOLA founder Dr. Calvin Mackie, said STEM Saturdays launched the organization six years ago in New Orleans. On the second Saturday of each month, children from kindergarten through 12th grade meet for three hours to do hand-on activities with a specific theme.

“If it’s heart day, we’ll explain to the kids how the circulatory system works,” Mackie said. “They’ll actually dissect a heart. They’ll build a mechanical heart and take it home with them. There’s always a big build that the child can take with them.”

Additionally, children and families can interact with industry professionals and college students studying in STEM fields.
Xavier University student JoJo O’Conner was among the volunteers present at Saturday’s STEM Fest. She said the best part about STEM NOLA events is the exposure they provide to children who might not be aware of the opportunities ahead of them.

“It’s amazing to see how engaged they are,” O’Conner said. “You think they are just watching, but they actually ask questions and want to know more about it.”

Mackie said STEM events also encourage participation from local leaders in the community. She said STEM NOLA additionally offers coding camps, teacher development, after school programming and in school programming.

“The exposure is so important. Kids can see things they have maybe never heard of before on different professions that could possibly consider when they are adults,” Mackie said. “The way things are done now, there are not as many hands on activities in classrooms. It’s a lot of theory and not really feeling and touching and doing the activities. Hopefully it’s something STEM NOLA and hopefully STEM St. John will bring to the community.”

STEM NOLA programming was introduced to the St. John Parish School System in early 2019 at Fifth Ward Elementary, and there are plans to expand the program’s reach, according to Chenier.

“STEM NOLA has branched out now outside of the Central New Orleans area,” Chenier said. “When I came in this morning, Ms. Mackie and I had a conversation about what we can do to help support each other.”