Community, Education

BIPOC youth break learning barriers

Signing up for what is essentially a summer school course in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field may not sound appealing to the average high schooler – but what if it was paid?

Invention Lab is a four-week, paid summer experience for BIPOC high school students to learn skill-building and STEM subjects like coding, engineering, and prototyping. Students earn a wage of $16.50/hour.

Connected Lane County (CLC) is an independent nonprofit which serves over 2,000 youth annually. CLC works to “break down barriers, build bridges, and create strategic partnerships to connect youth with education and employment pathways to transform their future potential.”

Spark is a CLC program which brings community, education, and industry together. Spark’s goal is “inspire youth through innovation, education, and hands-on learning.” Spark has a handful of programs, including Invention Lab, which create spaces for curiosity and creativity to thrive within young innovators.

“The idea is that we’re trying to find youth who maybe don’t have access to those types of learning or experiences who may need to work over the summer, and we’re giving them this sorta in place of a job to help build those skills, but also to know that they have a  job for the summertime,” said Heidi Larwick, who is CLC’s executive director.

Participants spend the first two weeks of each cohort learning STEM skills, and the second two weeks are spent putting what they learned into team invention projects. In some cases, youths will need to learn an extra skill to create their product in the exact way they’re imagining it – for example, some participants were taught how to sew.

Invention Lab also provides participants with a personal finance class, resume building, and LinkedIn management – all while they’re getting paid.

Each summer, Invention Lab has had a slightly different theme, so the inventions from the last two years are different from the ones created this summer. The theme for 2023 was wearable technology, and the students’ projects had to have two components: be something that’s worn and solve some kind of problem.

Marmy Hernández González, an incoming sophomore at Springfield, learned about Invention Lab because she was in Inventions Club, another Spark program, in eighth grade. Justin Thibedeau, the program lead for Invention Lab, emailed Marmy back in January about this opportunity, and she hesitated at first… but then she realized this would be paid.

“In the beginning, it was kind of tough waking up at 7 a.m., going on a bus, and heading here, but you get paid to learn, so it’s an awesome experience,” Marmy said. “I got to meet a bunch of people from different walks of life. It’s really a welcoming experience with lots of diversity, so it’s really fun and really energizing to get different ideas.”

Marmy and her group members created Chatter Critters.

“Our project that we worked on for two weeks is a device for nonverbal kids to be able to communicate,” Marmy said. “If you move it up right, it will be a yes face. If you move it up left, it will be a no face.”

Chatter Critters’ mission is to empower nonverbal people to have a voice, a way to communicate and be heard. The inspiration came from Marmy. She has been in speech therapy, and she picked up on her speech therapist using cards that signified ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so nonverbal kids could respond to questions.

Brianne Fields, an incoming junior at Thurston, created Toasty Threads: a heated scarf that also lights up “so you can stay warm while also staying stylish.” Her group started with what article of clothing they wanted to use. After deciding on a scarf, they settled on a heated scarf but thought it would be too easy – which is where the light element came in.

She said Invention Lab helped boost her confidence because she has always struggled with applying what she learns.

“It’s very encouraging to work hard for something that I know I’m going to enjoy doing as a career,” Brianne said. “ I know that I can do that now because this definitely has the potential to become something. I feel more motivated to work hard and go into a career I enjoy – like this.”

Party Walkers, a 3D printed device which is attached to footwear and lights up for every step, was another impressive product from Cohort C.

“It’s more aimed toward an older audience because there’s some adults I know that want light up shoes, but they can’t buy a pair of Sketchers when they’re kid-sized,” said Julio Perales, an incoming junior at Springfield.

Incoming Thurston junior MJ Maraia, incoming Thurston senior Lexi Pehaim, and incoming sophomore at Springfield Abi McDonald created the Travel Buddy.

“It tracks your steps, but after every 250 or so steps, it has a message that will change,” Abi said. “It provides motivation and positive affirmations.”

The Travel Buddy was inspired by MJ’s panic disorder.

“I write on myself a lot – just like little positive affirmations and like, ‘You can get through this. You can do this test,’ and then teachers will see it and think I’m cheating and call me out on it or other kids will come up to me and ask me, ‘Hey, what’s that written on your arm?’ – and then I’ll have to be vulnerable and share my own worries and concerns with those people when I’m just trying to remind myself that, ‘Hey, I’m OK at this moment,’” MJ said.

Out of the 75 participants in this summer’s cohorts, there were 23 students from the Springfield School District, two students from Creswell School District, and 15 students from Cottage Grove School District; 79% identified as BIPOC; and there were 39 people who identified as male, 41 people who identified as female, and four people who identified as non-binary.

According to CLC’s 2022-23 annual report, CLC served 3,158 youth and paid $732,123 in youth wages. As of print time Tuesday, CLC had the following statistics for 2023 so far: CLC has served 1,704 youth, and CLC had paid youth and mentors $497,531 in wages.

Larwick said Invention Lab is really all about introducing youth to these STEM subjects and honing in their curiosity.

“What was really apparent was that there was this lack of opportunities and experiences for a lot of our marginalized youth and trying to identify ways to solve that challenge,” Larwick said. “And this is one of the ways that we’ve identified as a way to solve that.”



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