Middletown Students Experience IDEAS Lab

Enoila Shokunbi, a fifth grader at McDonough School in Middletown, knows exactly what she wants to be when she grows up.

“President,” she said quickly. “But I might want to be a singer first.”

Enoila explains that someone like Taylor Swift would likely get more votes for president because of her pop stardom, so that might be the route she wants to emulate. After her visit to Wesleyan University’s IDEAS Lab on July 14, Enoila might be able to add scientist to her list of career aspirations.

Enoila is part of the STEM GEMS camp run by STEAM Train, a non-profit organization committed to helping underserved, under resourced, and underrepresented populations move towards careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

She and a group of about 20 Middletown-area third through sixth graders took their first trip to the Wesleyan IDEAS Lab where Shawn Lopez, IDEAS Lab Coordinator, gave them a crash course on the latest tools and technology. The students saw how 3-D printing and laser cutting worked and put together dinosaur models. Perhaps most importantly, the kids heard how these tools, used for fun that afternoon, can be important for all kinds of STEAM related careers, from architecture to fashion design.

“Their eyes just open up. They discover things that they’d never seen before …  What they are doing is learning and they don’t realize that they are learning,” said Donna Hylton, a retired professor of computer technology at Middlesex Community College and founder of the STEAM Train program. “The purpose of bringing STEAM Train to campus is for students to explore great, educational Middletown sites where they can see STEAM in action.”

Hylton started the program in 2017 to give students from underrepresented communities a glimpse of another path in life. “I believe there is a need to raise up a generation of innovators and I believe this generation of innovators needs to represent all of America,” said Hylton, a Middlefield resident. “I want them to see that they can be the next Mae Jemison (the first Black woman to travel in space).”

Lopez confessed to being a bit nervous about presenting to a class of young kids, but there were no nerves apparent as he buzzed around the room explaining to a group of enthusiastic children how Wesleyan’s state of the art technology worked. “It’s so much fun,” he said just before leading a countdown to the completion of 3-D printed model.

He remembered being in seventh grade in the mid-1980s and being exposed to computer coding (BASIC was the first computer language he encountered.) It was a pivotal moment in his education. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with computers, but I knew I wanted to do something with them for the rest of my life,” Lopez said.

By throwing open Wesleyan’s doors to the community, Lopez hopes that these children will be exposed to the same kind of possibilities he saw back as a kid. “They have the talent, but they don’t have the access,” he said.

All of those hopes and dreams for this group of young scholars was held lightly in the background as they laughed, worked on their projects and observed the cool machines in action.

Raphael Gallimore, 8, happily watched the laser printer go through the motions. If he has his wish, someday we’ll all be watching him on Sunday afternoons playing quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Kansas City Chiefs. But for a few hours, another path was on display. “Science is my second-best subject. Math is my first,” he said.

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