Vol. 130 No. 32, Wednesday, August 10, 2022
WILTON - A new non-profit has come to Franklin County that will train kids in science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and manufacturing (STREAM).
This labeling is a bit different than STEM education used in many schools today where STEM refers to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Some schools have added arts to it and use STEAM as a reference.
Maine STREAM Place, established by Leah and Joseph O’Brien, will offer programs where local students can learn about technology and engineering (among other subjects), compete on a FIRST Robotics competition team and gain life skills such as leadership and communication.
The O’Briens, who recently moved to Wilton from Washington state, both have backgrounds in engineering and technology.
Joseph, the president of STREAM Place, is a retired Boeing System Safety engineer who worked on groundbreaking technology including the Inertial Upper Stage space launcher (among other jobs).
Leah, the secretary of the non-profit, is a United States Air Force Veteran who also worked as a process/project engineer at Boeing, where she met Joseph.
Joseph became interested in working closely with kids after mentoring a FIRST Robotics team in Washington.
After coming to Wilton, the O’Briens built an expansive workshop to continue teaching children.
The original intent was to serve the Blue Crew, a FIRST Robotics team at Mt. Blue High School who do not currently have their own dedicated space in the school. But due to school district procedures, the O’Briens were unable to offer them the space as their headquarters.
Still determined to train local youth, the O’Briens started Maine STREAM Place and began teaching students in February 2022.
“There’s a lot of really smart kids here in Maine, and they need a good outlet … to learn,” Leah said.
STREAM Place is now targeting homeschooled children and students in school districts without robotics teams in grades eight through twelve.
After establishing as a 501(C)(3) non-profit in May the O’Briens, along with a selection of members and a board of directors, and preparing to launch a formal program in the fall.
In the coming months, the workshop will be filled with all kinds of equipment – a full wood shop, machine shop, welding shop, a plasma cutter, 3D printer, and extensive equipment to build robots and other machinery,
Most of the equipment is already acquired, Joseph said. They are waiting on a haas mill (costing around $100,000-$120,000) that can design robotic parts.
The O’Briens have ensured that the kinds of equipment STREAM Place has acquired are safe for kids and designed for learning.
Joseph said that when he was at Boeing, he saw the “full lifecycle” of a product, from design concept through assembly to fielding.
“We’re doing the same things for these kids. They wind up having to build a robot inside of seven, eight weeks, from start to finish,” he said. “They get to see that while project and we get to teach them engineering to pull all that together”
“Just by doing that building of the robot, it enables them to really get a job any place they want, depending upon how much they decided to learn as they’re in this program.”
The actual program will feature three levels of student training, from apprenticing to mentor oversight to operating machinery on their own to teaching other students.
The O’Briens feel their experiences in these industries make them the right people to lead this charge.
“We’re not teachers, but we’re from industry,” Leah said. “And we’re bringing in industry-leading teachers or mentors to help the students so they’ll get stuff that is really applicable to industry.”
While there are specific training programs, Joseph said that there is opportunity for all kinds of learning and unique ways to teach.
He offered an example of recently throwing a ball back and forth with a student and in that process, teaching them trigonometry in the span of 30 minutes.
The O’Briens said they are looking forward to seeing the different things students can get out of this program.
“It’s amazing to see how they change going through the program and the friendships they make with each other,” Leah said. “A lot of times the kids that are drawn to programs like this have a hard time making friends.”
Leah also equated the program to the proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
“We’re helping teach [the students] how to fish,” Leah said.
And, she added, this program “teaches them how to be leaders.”
The program will also help prepare students for the next chapter of Maine’s evolving industries. These industries are increasingly relying on robotics and other newer forms of technology to operate, Leah said.
“We understand that industry needs,” Leah said, adding that she’s spoken with companies like Bath Iron Works and has learned that they are looking for employees trained in engineering and technical skills.
“[The next generation] is gonna need to be able to use their brains more,” Leah said. “And they need to understand how things are done in order to program the robots.”
Leah said she had to leave Maine (where she grew up) to pursue a career in engineering and robotics. She hopes this program will prepare kids for the industry and keep them in their home state.
Additionally, Joseph said he values the personal satisfaction he gets from this kind of work.
“The amount of energy that goes into this and the friendships that I get back are really phenomenal,” he said.
Joseph told a story about a student in Washington participating in the robotics team that was struggling in his personal life.
After getting to know the student, Joseph wrote him a recommendation letter and the student was later awarded a $10,000 scholarship to start a welding business.
“You really do see these kids that would have been absolutely lost,” Joseph said while tearing up. “It gives them a place. It’s pretty special.”
The formal program, which they anticipate to start with 25-30 kids overall and 20-25 kids on the robotics team, will launch in the fall.
Maine STREAM Place is hosting an informational session and family open house Sunday Aug. 28, at 12 p.m. Those interested should RSVP to email@example.com or 207-645-3171.
More information about the session and overall organization can be found at https://www.mainestreamplace.org