Teens practice their STEM skills through interactive program
Last summer, 16-year-old Daniel Martorella spent several hours teaching children how to program robots.
“We worked with ozobots, which are tiny robots about one-and-a-half inches tall,” said Daniel, a Darien resident. “The bottom of the robots have sensors that track colored paths on paper. On top, they have lights that show what colors the sensors are picking up.”
Daniel gave the children a worksheet with a list of codes. The codes activate simple commands that the robots can perform, such as turning around.
Daniel was volunteering with STEM Venture Unit 353, an educational program for high school boys and girls that’s run through the Boy Scouts of America. High school graduates can remain in the program in the role of adviser and mentor until their 21st birthday.
The program, which was established in Darien in 2016, has a special focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) development and education.
“Our venture unit is totally and completely dedicated to promoting STEM research and curriculum development of our high school students,” said Patrick Gentile of Darien, Venture Crew adviser. “The express purpose of our mission is for them to be able to teach and mentor young people within Fairfield County that live in lower income communities.”
Over the last two-and-one-half years, STEM Venture teams have provided mentoring and counseling to over 300 at-risk children, Gentile said.
“The whole concept of what we do at the inner-city level is to help children develop their own voice through learning social and emotional skills, and being able to work together in groups,” he added.
STEM Venture members will help any community organization “that has a desire for us to teach,” Gentile said.
Currently, there are 15 teens enrolled in the program.
The Venture Unit has worked to write a curriculum of over 100 experiments and activities.
“We provide a full curriculum of science experiments, robotics, and computer coding,” Gentile said.
Members meet both in person and virtually. They practice giving the lesson they intend to teach.
“They share ideas with each other online through video conferencing,” Gentile said.
Over the summer, the Venture teens volunteered with the Norwalk Community College Horizons program. It’s free for children in grades 1 to 5 from low-income families who are having difficulty with reading and math development skills.
The best part of the Venture program, according to Daniel, is teaching the younger children new skills.
“It’s a feeling when you are helping out the younger kids that you probably wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Daniel, adding that he is also a Boy Scout.
He referred to teaching the children how to program robots when he said he liked watching them “go out and do it by themselves.”
Another activity Venture teens participated in was a science advancement program called Webelos College. It was for fourth and fifth grade Cub Scouts and held in November at Scofield Magnet Middle School in Stamford.
Venture teens led a hands-on lesson on the dissection of owl pellets.
“Our high school students taught close to 80 children within a four-hour period,” Gentile said.
“Children identified what the owl ate by looking at its bones,” said Venture member Julia Pfrommer, 16, adding that she designed the dissection lesson herself. “We had one owl that ate a bird. We had a couple of shrews, a mole, and rodents (that were eaten by owls),” said Julia, a Darien resident.
Julia said she especially liked being able to answer the children’s’ questions.
“I had a kid ask me ‘How do they collect the owl pellets?’” Julia said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I learned that it’s a state secret, and is something that I want to learn.”
Venture members help over 500 Cub Scouts each year through several townwide STEM events. At a Cub Scout recruitment event in September, they ran science and engineering stations.
“Our students taught the Cub Scouts robotic programming and computer coding,” said Gentile, who has been involved with Scouting for over 20 years. “The Cub Scouts learned how to write different programs by using computer commands.”
The STEM Venture program provides many life skills to teens, including leadership, according to Gentile.
“It creates a youth empowerment cycle by providing an opportunity for older students to teach younger students, and in turn the younger students then teach new students, so it’s a continuous cycle,” Gentile said.
“We try to make it as flexible and as fun as we can so they have the time to devote to it,” said Gentile, adding many Stem Venture Unit members are also in the general Boy Scout program.
The Andrew Shaw Memorial Trust provides annual financial support for the STEM Venture Unit. The program is also supported by the Connecticut Yankee Council and the Darien Foundation, which funds projects that promote and enhance opportunities for Darien’s youth.
Julia said one of the reasons she likes the program is because “it’s very focused on helping others.”
She added that she likes getting the opportunity to learn new skills.
“I end up learning something at the end of the day that I didn’t know before,” she said.
“It’s also great working with the other high school students,” Julia said. “They are very dedicated, very passionate, and always willing to help out. It’s such a collaborative effort to give the best demonstration.”
She said that STEM topics, and especially anatomy, have always been a “passion” of hers. “I am in charge of the Anatomy Club at my high school,” Julia said. “This is in my field and sharing that with these kids who want to learn is very enjoyable.”
To learn more about the STEM Venture Unit, visit darienscouts.org or contact Pat Gentile at firstname.lastname@example.org.