Using Stories to Share STEAM: Transcending Barriers with our Hands-On Enrichment
A beloved story just may be the key to taking STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) fields to new places, or at least, that’s what we found on a recent visit to Saida, Lebanon.
And at NuMinds, taking STEAM to new frontiers is the plan: we want to ignite intense curiosity in students of all backgrounds to explore new technologies and cultivate the critical thinking and empathy skills that will equip them for the jobs of the future.
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While in Saida, Justin Vawter, NuMinds Co-Founder, Chief Creative Officer, and Head of Curriculum Development, was tasked with developing a curriculum for a new audience: elementary-aged refugee children.
Just like that, the trip quickly transformed into Justin spending his evenings developing a curriculum for a children grappling with severe trauma and living as refugees, uprooted by civil war, famine, and exile and often still experiencing discrimination or abuse.
He developed an 8-lesson unit blending language acquisition, coding, and job skills, all anchored in traditional Syrian stories to provide a relatable narrative.
Using a Syrian tale as inspiration, we challenged students to build the tallest tower – of the marshmallow and toothpick variety. Lessons like this not only helped cultivate open-ended, divergent thinking, but also inspired some barrier breakdown.
For example, the program director had specific highlighted a few likely challenges, in particular one very shy little girl, and one boy known not to engage with girls, period. But with the aid of the hands-on tasks, even the most withdrawn and quiet attendees were spurred into laughter – and a little snacking on the supplies.
Our curriculum also helped break down gender barriers between the toughest of students, transcending even the deep barriers brought on by extreme trauma.
These connections were telling.
“That becomes the test – would this work for kids anywhere?” Justin said. “And it was a resounding yes.”
Breaking the Poverty Cycle
In a single year, the count of refugee children out of school has increased by half a million, totaling a staggering 4 million. At a global level, nearly all children attend primary school (92% on average) and secondary school (84% globally), but just 61% of refugee children attend primary school, and a mere 23% are enrolled in secondary school.
When education is often the greatest tool to break a cycle of poverty and exploitation, we know bringing education to refugee children is paramount to improving the course of their lives.
Our programming’s outstanding reception in Saida signals not only a wonderful foundation for working with refugees in Lebanon, but also the potential to cultivate systemic change preparing students of all backgrounds and experiences for the jobs of the future.
We intentionally created these enrichment programs to operate on a shoestring budget, enabling them to be quickly dispersed to teachers to continue our programming, cultivating a sustainable ripple effect and ushering STEAM into new parts of the world and to vulnerable populations.
And that’s only the beginning.
Launching a New Enrichment for Refugee Children
Armed with funding from a recent GlobalGiving campaign, we’re partnering with Education Unbound, a nonprofit organization with a mission to build up STEAM in education, to expand STEAM enrichment for refugees and immigrants with the launch of a pilot program this month.
NuMinds and Education Unbound will spearhead a 40-hour STEAM enrichment for refugee children with a hands-on program aimed at equipping students with essential skills needed for today’s jobs: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication (often referred to as the four C’s, and lauded as the critical 21st century skills).
From there, we hope to expand further to support a much larger refugee population.
Data will be collected from student assessments before, during, and after our pilot enrichment concludes in December and released to our donors. Next, we plan to expand the enrichment to other shelters – a significant step as we will be transforming a pilot program impacting a smaller refugee community into a program that broadly impacts a larger refugee community.
The unique challenges refugee children face isn’t lost on Education Unbound co-founder Weeda Haman.
“I feel that these children have lost everything,” she said. “But they are still hanging on to their dreams.”
And Weeda sees it as Education Unbound’s role to ignite their dreams.
Education Unbound’s mission is both passion and personal for Weeda. Both she and her husband and Education Unbound co-founder Maan Hamdan lived as refugees when war tore apart their own homes as children. Weeda recalls the support she received growing up as she juggled 5 jobs while attending school.
“It was just hard work,” she said, “But we were given a helping hand along the way.”
Now, it’s Education Unbound’s turn to extend that helping hand.
“We owe it to others to support them, to uplift them,” Weeda said. “And by uplifting them, we uplift ourselves.”
A New Future
One key way to uplift a refugee population grappling with severe trauma and crippling poverty is to prepare children to step into careers that will change their life’s trajectory.
Our holistic program incorporates critical thinking, empathy and problem solving, and builds on its programming along the way, eliminating language barrier challenges with the hands-on emphasis.
But we’ll need more helping hands to uplift refugee children.