Alissa Widman Neese The Columbus Dispatch

Feb 14, 2019 at 5:57 PM Feb 15, 2019 at 6:28 AM

Sprawled on the classroom floor, the students organized hundreds of tiny robot pieces into color-coded piles at Champion Middle School.

They studied assembly drawings, the pages that show how all the components fit together. Guided by an experienced engineer‘s expertise, they carefully locked the first Lego pieces into place.

That doesn‘t mean he was in the room, though.

This school year, a Gahanna-based startup company called OASIS is educating hundreds of Ohio students with video labs focused on the flourishing career fields of science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM. Students in grades 3 through 8 use 3-D printers and pilot drones while also learning skills such as teamwork and problem-solving.

The OASIS acronym stands for “opening access to STEAM in informal settings.” (The “A” in STEAM stands for “art,” which some groups include in the acronym.) The goal of aptly named OASIS is to bring the subjects to places that educators often call “STEM deserts,” where there is little or no access to those subjects.

“It‘s fascinating,” said Champion sixth-grader Mikell Lewis, 12, who participates in OASIS labs weekly through an after-school program called After-School All-Stars Ohio. The nonprofit group is using the labs at four of its five Columbus sites this school year.

Mikell said he is most excited to program a working robot with his classmates at the Near East Side school, something he‘s never done before.

Typically, STEM deserts are in impoverished areas, where it‘s more difficult to find licensed educators or families who can pay for after-school experiences.

Schools where 75 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches are least likely to have access to STEM resources, experiences and classes, according to a 2017 report from Change the Equation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that advocates for STEM access and literacy.

That leaves those kids less likely to pursue STEM careers, the report said, which continue to grow and pay better than the national average for all other jobs.

The report suggests technological innovations, such as virtual reality, as one cost-effective option to increase accessibility.

“It has always been a goal of mine to come up with an idea to reach back to the communities from which I came, to help give other people the same opportunities and skills,” said OASIS founder Maurice Womack, 41, a mechanical engineer who grew up in Youngstown.

Years ago, Womack and his wife, Erica, 39, started the project by creating an after-school STEM lab in Gahanna and traveling programs led by trained coaches. Eventually, they realized that offering self-led, digital STEM lessons, with the option of a coach, could reach more children and reduce costs.

Since starting last year, OASIS is being used in 15 locations across the state, the majority in central Ohio, as well as the I Promise School in Akron founded by NBA star LeBron James. That was an exciting “stamp of approval,” Womack said.

The couple hope to launch the program nationally, to make STEM education affordable and accessible to everyone, he said.

For $600, participants can purchase a four-week lab for 15 students, including staff training and all materials, which are delivered, Womack said. For a bit more, they can keep the materials for future use.

Just one age-appropriate Lego robot would cost about $160. 

OASIS also has received nearly $200,000 in grants to help offset costs associated with the program, about half from Columbus-based science and technology company Battelle, which manages the Ohio STEM Learning Network.

Aimee Kennedy, Battelle‘s senior vice president for education and philanthropy, said engaging, accessible STEM programs such as OASIS are important to exposing children to math and science early, before they assume they‘re not cut out for careers in those fields.

Even if they don‘t pursue a career, every child benefits, she said.

“It teaches you to be curious, a critical thinker and a problem-solver, and to accept failure as part of the process,” Kennedy said. “Regardless if you want to be an engineer, an artist or a musician, those are skills that will serve you well across all disciplines.”

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