Spokes America comes to Hazard

Challenger Learning Center Director Tom Cravens stands with the Spokes America students from MIT and Harvard who made their first stop on their tour at the Center in Hazard on June 12.

The group hosted three workshops to help get local grade and high school students excited for science, technology, engineering, and math based (STEM) degrees and careers.

Cravens said more than 50 students attended the one and a half day workshops, and were given the chance to learn computer programming, how to build a robot, and how to build and launch a rocket.

HAZARD—Biking 3,000 miles across the country may sound like fun to some, and teaching students about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) may sound like fun to others—but putting the two together probably wouldn’t appeal to many. This is what a handful of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students chose to do with their summer this year, and they made their first stop at the Challenger Learning Center in Hazard earlier this month.

MIT freshman Drew Bent explained that he and his group are part of the Spokes America program.

“Spokes America was started two years ago by MIT students who wanted to sort of combine their passions for biking and teaching to bring awesome and exciting engineering hands-on learning to different parts of the country,” Bent said.

The group of five Harvard and two MIT students, all from engineering and science backgrounds, left Washington D.C. at the beginning of June, making their first stop in Hazard on June 12, Bent added.

“I was really excited because I’ve always liked teaching. I’ve been teaching since I was in high school—I’ve been tutoring people—and I’ve always wanted to do something like this also combined with travelling across the country. It’s just amazing,” he said.

Harvard student Shadi Fadaee echoed Bent’s sentiments as to why she wanted to join the group for the summer.

Fadaee explained that she heard of the program from a friend.

“They told me that it was this amazing program where we were going to be biking across America and stopping at some schools to get kids excited about science and engineering,” she said. “It was very interesting for me. It was a very amazing opportunity to go around the country and teach students and inspire them how I was inspired by my teachers.”

At each stop, the group will be hosting three workshops, each centered around either computer programming, electrical engineering (building a robot), and mechanical engineering (building a rocket), Bent said.

“We don’t think we can teach them all they need to know in engineering in our day and a half, but what we do think we can do is get them excited about things they may not have known about before,” Bent said.

Bent, who was working with the computer programming workshop, said it was exciting to be able to teach programming to a group of students, more than half of whom had never seen programming before in their lives.

“This is the first time that many of them are even touching code. Within the first hour we had them all programming by themselves,” he said. “What we wanted to leave students with is a sense of empowerment, of seeing what they’ve done—seeing their own rockets launched 300 feet in the air, seeing their robots and code execute itself—and almost being sort of surprised with what they’ve done.”

A similar experience with a teacher helped Bent stay on the road he has been travelling toward a degree in STEM at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. He said he hoped to be able to ignite that same spark in the students he and his group come in contact with over the summer.

“We don’t think we can teach them everything, but we think we can get them excited about it all,” he said.

Amelia Holliday can be reached at 606-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.

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