Linking Communities with STEM

We live in a world where many go hungry while others waste food. What if we entrusted our students to design STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics) solutions that save and reuse resources to create sustainable systemic change? What if we gave them the space and time – inside and outside the four walls of the classroom – to collaborate, innovate, and reimagine narratives surrounding need in their communities?

In 2015, with support from LRNG, John Legend, and the National Writing Project, the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project explored these questions with young people across the city. Dr. Michelle Zuckerman, a WPWP teacher-consultant with an engineering and technology background, led the project team, which included teacher-consultants Colleen Geiger, Ro Vigilante, Teresa Narey, and Dr. Sheila Carter-Jones, in a high-intensity, collaborative project, aiming to address an important problem.

In Pittsburgh, where 1 in 3 residents suffers from food instability, students representing eight diverse neighborhood schools fed hungry families by reclaiming, evenly dividing, then distributing 15,000 lbs. of perishable foods from Trader Joe’s in West Liberty that would have otherwise been wasted.

By working together on this problem, students connected with others and learned how to manage need in their communities. They brainstormed long-term solutions using STEM; organized and led action; and imagined a different future. These students explored sustainable solutions by designing community gardens, hydroponics, packages that extend shelf life, and a community food truck.

In Pittsburgh, STEM is more than an acronym; it’s how we are imagining and designing innovative solutions to link communities.

Ty, a formerly homeless high school senior at the time of the project, knew firsthand what it was like to be hungry. He was one of many students using STEM to link communities. According to Ty, ”STEM is an important part of my life just as much as air is. Other people aren’t aware of how important it really is, or really should be…We want to use what we know and collaborate with other students dedicated to projects using STEM to increase the quality of life for people.” Ty, and his peers, needed our support to create long-lasting changes promoting social justice.

As educators, adults, and supporters, we can enable our students in this journey toward sustainable change. They are the decision-makers; they are experiencing the importance of compassion, creativity, and innovation. They are the agents of change.

The 2015 project’s work will reverberate throughout their communities and beyond; it gave us all an image of what it might mean to “be the change we wish to see in the world” and rewrite negative narratives about who we are and what we do to lift one another toward a better tomorrow (Gandhi).