Students from MIT and Harvard are biking cross country to get kids excited about STEM

Six of the seven members of the 2015 Spokes team. Courtesy of Spokes.
Six of the seven members of the 2015 Spokes team. Courtesy of Spokes.

If you live anywhere between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, look out your window this summer and try to spot them: a group of MIT and Harvard college students biking west, spreading a love of STEM education like a math-obsessed Johnny Appleseed.

“It’s a growing problem in the US that there’s not enough engineers,” said Francesca Childs, a Harvard sophomore studying astrophysics and physics, and one of the seven riders.

She and the rest of her team are members of Spokes, a club at MIT that for the past two years has embarked on the cross-country bike tours. Along the way, students will stop at 10 to 15 libraries, middle schools, and home school networks and host workshops in a variety of STEM fields, providing hands-on science experience to kids that might not otherwise get it.

The trip is planned to take until early August will traverse the famous Trans-America trail. The team will be hosting three different types of workshops, each of which will take place over a one- or two-day period, depending on the needs of the students.

Childs, Harvard junior Tola Omilana, and MIT freshman Drew Bent will be hosting the computer science workshop, where kids will be learning to program in Scratch, a simple computer language developed by a team at MIT.

Shadi Fadaee, a sophomore at Harvard, and Jorge Troncoso, a freshman at MIT, will be teaching a electrical engineering workshop instructing kids how to build Spout Bot, a robot designed to “teach the principles of matter and energy.”

The mechanical engineering workshop will have the children build a model rocket, with individual variations on a central rocketeering concept. The students hosting that workshop are Simon Shuham, a sophomore at Harvard, and Brian Wagner, a Harvard freshman.

The students have created their own syllabi for the workshops, with some guidance from Teach for America, who also partially funded the project. With additional help from edX, the MIT Edgerton Center, Cannondale, Texas Instruments, and private donors, they have managed to raise $30,000 for their trip. They will be transporting 20 laptops with them as they traverse the country.

Childs expressed hope that the program could get kids to consider studying STEM subjects in college. “We need to get them excited about this,” she said. “When they’re in school, doing all that math, they’ll remember that spark, and that’ll keep them going.”