Full steam ahead

Three cute cartoon characters dance on the screen at the front of the Grade 6/7 class. Instructor Bryan Williams has explained the steps to program the game, and now it’s the students’ turn to drag and drop the pieces of code to get their own characters to dance.

Bryan is with STEAM Engine, the flagship program of Hamilton non-profit Mathstronauts. In five weeks of in-class lessons or 10 weeks after school, students learn project-based computer programming, 3D modelling and graphic design. Instructors, mentors and curriculum materials reflect the diversity of the students. The program ends with an inspiring visit from a General Motors engineer.

The goal is to help those who are traditionally under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math, to see themselves in a STEM career.

Its work is sorely needed. Demand for STEM talent is growing exponentially, says executive director Sehrish Zehra, and the income of STEM graduates is $15,000 more a year than their non-STEM counterparts. But financial and structural barriers are keeping lower-income, racialized and female students from accessing programs.

“Not every person will love this stuff, but every person should have the opportunity to try it out,” Sehrish says. “We want to plant the seed early.”

HCF’s ABACUS initiative has funded STEAM Engine from its humble beginnings in one Hamilton school in 2016. Since then, it’s grown to serve 600 middle-schoolers in 17 high-priority schools in both the public and Catholic boards, with plans to expand to 29 schools and an additional 600 students by June 2024. ABACUS also supports a numeracy program for elementary students developed by Mathstronauts.

Back in the classroom, the students program the game on their own iPads, with bursts of dance music and whoops of excitement signalling success. “There’s this moment when they realize they have the tools to make things,” Bryan says. “If they play, they will learn.”