The Forest City YMCA is slowly bringing back STEM programs for kids after a long summer of almost no programming.
Bridge Builders Jr. was their first summer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program, held for two weeks starting July 13.
The YMCA is working in partnership with Kingland Construction Services to bring back these programs, supported by the Master Builders of Iowa Workforce Opportunities Require Knowledge of Skills (MBI-WORKS) Endowment, which gave them $30,000 to use for the different programs.
The MBI-WORKS grant was created to offer resources to complement career education and workforce recruitment into the Iowa commercial construction industry, and $5 million was committed in total toward the establishment of the endowment.
In 2019, the Endowment received 16 applications, requesting a total of $722,000 in funding, and after a comprehensive review the Endowment supported over $871,000 in workforce efforts.
“It’s great to see programming starting again and local kids having the opportunity within reason to participate in events,” MBI Workforce Manager Ali Mahoney-Doran said. “Additionally opportunities will soon become available and will need students to participate in those upcoming activities.”
YMCA Director of Programs Tony Reynolds said the whole purpose of the Endowment is to further skill trades, whether through education or marketing, and construction companies, like Kingland Construction, who are members of the MBI had to partner with a nonprofit to offer educational opportunities, for adults or kids.
One of the things Reynolds said he would like to do with the grant is put together a STEM trailer that can be taken around the county to cities like Lake Mills and Buffalo Center who don’t have a YMCA.
Reynolds said they also want to develop skill trades programs for kids who are younger than middle schoolers, so from first through fourth graders, and get them interested and learning about trades like construction and mechanics.
“Many kids don’t have that opportunity with their parents, and they’re not going to have that opportunity at the schools at that age,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to sow some seeds in these really young kids and spark and interest and show them that the skill trades industry has got a lot of exciting opportunities for people as they get older.”
The YMCA’s new youth coordinator, Chris Parcher, led the Bridge Builders Jr program, in which about 11 kids learned about the different kinds of bridges and how they were constructed and built individual bridges and group bridges, using popsicle sticks and glue, that were then stress tested.
Originally, when the application was submitted last year, Reynolds said they were going to do seven programs, and if COVID-19 didn’t hit, they would be in their fifth or sixth program by now, but because of the pandemic they’ve had to cancel most of the programming.
“We’ve not done the things we were hoping to do with the grant, but the good thing is the money’s still there and we will get these programs out,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when we can roll them out safely.”
Some future programs Reynolds said he’s trying to roll out are Grease Monkeys, in which the middle schoolers took apart car engines and put back together, and in Grease Monkeys Jr, the first through fourth graders will work on bicycles.
“What I really want them to understand is braking systems and drive trains and lubricants and these different things, and you have that in a bike,” he said. “Yeah, got that in a car, but you have some of those same concepts in a bike, and it’s many, many fewer pieces to deal with.”
Another program in the works is House Builders, in which middle school kids will build 2-feet model houses using balsam woods and blueprints, Reynolds said.
“It teaches the kids the whole concept of the engineering that goes into a framed house and how to work with dimensional lumber,” he said. “There’s a lot of engineering that goes into the truss work and different loading stress points and loading variables throughout the house.”
To help lead the kids through these programs, Kingland Construction will send some of its workers to lead the programs with Reynolds and Parcher and spend some time with the kids, Reynolds said.
“We wouldn’t be doing this program without them. I mean, they have been an intregal piece of this all the way through, and although MBI is giving us $30,000, the amount of materials and time and just what Kingland Construction has invested into this, it’s pushing more like $50,000 or $60,000.”
Parcher said he and Reynolds can only do so much and only have so much knowledge and experience when it comes to STEM programming, so they are so reliant on experts in the community to step up and lead some of these programs.
“We can’t do everything,” he said. “We can facilitate it and plan it, but as far as teaching these kids, they deserve to learn from somebody who really truly understands whatever the material is.”
Fostering relationships between young kids and professionals in the community is a big part of these STEM programs and could be the most important piece that comes out of these programs, Reynolds said.
While it’s great to have these programs returning to the Y, Reynolds said they are watching the schools and the COVID-19 numbers closely to see if they need to shut them down again.
“We’ve been kind of like, let’s just wait and see how things progress here at the school a little bit before we get too crazy throwing out new programs,” he said. “We’ve got the details already planned out for all these different programs, it’s just where to plug them in and when to initiate them.”
In the meantime, aligning with the schools’ policy, Reynolds said when the kids come to these programs, they have to wear masks in common areas of the building and the STEAMS lab and hand sanitizer available almost everywhere.
Reynolds said it felt amazing and made his heart warm to see kids back at the YMCA and engaging in programs, including the football program, especially because socially isolating kids could be psychologically harmful.
"It felt good to be out there watching those kids, because here's the reality of it: obviously, there's a risk," he said. "With this COVID-19, there's a risk, but there's also risks to socially isolating young kids that go above and beyond what you see on the surface - respiratory issues. There are so many psychological things we've got to be concerned about with depression and just those things that come with kids not being able to engage with their peers outside of social media."
Reengaging kids in these programs and with social interactions is one of the most important parts of bringing these programs back for Reynolds and Parcher, and Parcher said it was cool and fun watching the kids interact again.
"Some of those kids didn't play baseball, they didn't do anything else this summer, they couldn't go to the pool, so this is really the first time for them to get back out and be with their peers," Reynolds said.
The STEM programs driven by the MBI grant are all free and open to everyone, not just YMCA members.
As the new programs and more information come out, Reynolds said they will let people know primarily through the Forest City YMCA’s Facebook page and on the website.
Grace Zaplatynsky covers Hancock and Winnebago counties. You can reach her at Grace.Zaplatynsky@GlobeGazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0534.
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