Friendship Train Foundation’s bubbly STEAM educator, Michelle Masarik, talks about the foundation’s traveling STEAMLabs program and what makes it unique, from addressing the educational needs of students to providing professional development for staff. Michelle brings to Friendship Train Foundation (FTF) her experience as STEAM Program Manager and Camp Director for the Girl Scouts of the Jersey Shore. Working in afterschool programming and informal education has become a passion. Being able to watch children grow—cognitively, emotionally and socially—through hands-on learning is an experience she hopes to bring to more communities.

Why is STEAM education so important for our children today?

STEAM education helps to demystify the sciences. STEAM instructors use hands on student driven activities to organically demonstrate the relationship between Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, but then goes the extra step to bring in Art. Art, Science and Math go hand in hand and students respond to the correlations. They make observations that link classroom learning to the natural world and begin to understand that even though art and the sciences are taught separately, they are linked.

What specific services does STEAMLabs offer, and who is the team behind it?

STEAMLabs offers programming for students K-8 and professional development for teachers, afterschool and summer camp instructors, home-schoolers and anyone else who is interested in hands on STEAM learning. Programming can be FTF provided with one of our qualified instructors leading a STEAM program; Turn Key – programming developed, sourced and trained by our staff but delivered by your staff; Developmental – our staff works with yours to develop an entire STEAM program for during day school time, afterschool, or during the summer; or Full Service – working together our staff helps to develop a comprehensive program then runs the initial programs modeling the experiential practices so that your staff can begin to create and run their own program.

The thing that makes STEAMLabs different from other programs is that our focus is not just on the materials, because someone can get a pretty cool activity from their favorite Instagram page. What STEAMLabs teaches is how to teach STEAM. How to get students to work together in teams, how to be that guide on the side instead of the sage on the stage, which is more familiar a role for daytime teachers. STEAMLabs model the art of learning through discovery and doing, which is harder than you think for educators. We also emphasize the important task of getting students to stop and analyze what they are doing and why.  Self-reflection and sharing of ideas is an important part of all STEAM activities.

Debbie Lodato, our Business Manager, will work to make sure that the STEAMLabs program meets your financial needs. I work with all of the stakeholders to develop a program that fits their STEAM needs. Then there is our staff of instructors, well qualified certified teachers and subject matter experts who engage students and staff alike in STEAM topics and activities.

How do you collaborate with school staff and administration to enhance their programs? 

We recognize that every organization is unique. The staff, teachers, students, location, and culture create a unique environment; an environment that can change even with the school year. STEAMLabs is not about delivering a new way to do things or pick out faults, it is about having conversations with people. Discovering through conversations what are the needs and wants of the staff and students. Finding out where our programming and experience can make a difference. Sometimes it is doing the same thing in a different way, sometimes it is supporting teachers with a STEAM Special, either way STEAMLabs is about providing a service that is asked for and agreed upon by the organization. Our foundation is STEAM, but exactly what and how it is delivered is decided through collaboration and conversation.

What would you say to a school or organization who thinks they can’t afford a STEAMLabs program?

FTF is a non-profit organization that focuses on making connections within a community to benefit the community. STEAMLabs is designed to bring hands on STEAM learning to all who ask. The staff of FTF will work with any school or organization to find a program that is a fit for their educational, social, emotional, and financial needs.

Are there any specific projects that the students really respond to?

Overall I find that students respond best when science is linked to their everyday lives. It could be a nature program that shows them how to identify birds or send atmospheric data to NASA on their cell phones, or the understanding that baking a cake is actually chemical engineering. Students need to see the correlation between school time learning and everyday life. As teachers and instructors, we live for those aha moments when the light bulb goes off and the connections are made. 

Can you please share a success story with us?

Yes, I’d love to talk about the All Stars Afterschool Program at Our Lady of Mt Carmel School (OLMC). OLMC is a small parochial mission school in Asbury Park, NJ. 90% of the students are at or below the poverty level and over 50% are ESL. FTF/STEAMLabs helped to start an afterschool program there to help students with homework and hands on learning afterschool. Not only did attendance and grades improve but stress was taken off of families who needed to work late and who may not have been able to help their children with their homework.

After the first year of programming, we asked the students on the evaluations, “What kind of programming would you like to see included next year?”. We were shocked to see that the students could not imagine any other programs beyond what they already had. Fast forward to year three when a group of students decided to ask for specific programming, and went to their language arts teacher and put together an entire presentation for the student council and programming board.

Hands on inquiry-based learning empowered students by making them aware of the opportunities available to them and gave them the tools to ask for what they needed.

What’s coming up next for STEAMLabs? 

This summer STEAMLabs will be working with summer programs such as the New Community Corporation in Newark. For eight weeks our instructors will be working alongside summer staff providing STEAM activities for 1st through 7th grade campers. Campers will get a taste of Robotics, Coding, Games and Activities that sharpen Math skills to avoid the summer slide. They will engineer rollercoasters and build towers to name a few activities. Along with the activities, and more importantly, campers will learn to listen to each other, try different ideas and work on process that organize their efforts, thoughts and data to complete tasks and challenges. Besides a fun, safe and educational summer, STEAMLabs will be working with staff, modeling hands on learning and helping them to further their future efforts to provide STEAM programming for the children of their community.

How can people get in touch with you to find out more?

People can reach out to me at michelle@friendshiptrain.org or by calling 732-933-4767. In addition, people can visit the FTF and STEAMLabs websites and our Instagram page:

http://www.mysteamlabs.org/

https://www.instagram.com/friendshiptrainfoundation/

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