Building a generation of independent thinkers

Building a generation of independent thinkers
Posted: May 29, 2018
Categories: Blog Posts

Chappapeela Sports Park hosted the free STEM Athletes Program on Saturday, May 26. Young students from the local area were led under Louisiana’s 2017 Teacher of the Year Joni Smith during a day full of hands on activities. Smith aims to inspire children to find their spark as natural scientists. 

Photo Credit: Larshell Green


Under the threat of a storm, about half a dozen children flocked to Chappapeela Sports Park to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math.

Young students from the local area were led under Louisiana’s 2017 Teacher of the Year Joni Smith during the free STEM Athletes Program on Saturday, May 26.

Smith’s original inspiration for the camp was to educate students who she doesn’t normally teach science and math principles to through STEM activities during community outreach.

“Students are natural scientists,” said Smith. “I want to be able to ignite that passion that’s already there. There’s a strong need for STEM careers that we aren’t filling. I want to help with that.”

Chappapeela Sports Park Director Ryan Barker met Smith during a community outreach program at the Children’s Discovery Center and requested her presence. Barker was inspired by a need to educate the community’s children in unique ways.

“I think it’s important for children to continue to learn and develop throughout the summer or holiday seasons,” said Barker. “CSP will bridge that gap between school and breaks with interactive fun filled learning activities.”

Smith has had a decade of experience as an educator. She has been teaching at Albany Middle School in Livingston Parish for four years. She previously taught at Westside Junior High in Walker for six years.

At Southeastern Louisiana University, Smith began as a nursing student in 2002. She switched her major to education after several people noticed her natural inclination towards working with children. Although the change required her to spend an extra year in school, she graduated in 2007 with a thirst for the passion to craved to fulfill.

She appreciates the opportunity to work with children, parents and leaders in the community who value the progression of education.  

“I’d like to thank the parents,” said Smith. “It’s important that they are valuing their child’s education by attending events like these. We also want to thank Ryan for providing this opportunity for kids free of charge.”  

Participants were treated to five majors stations during the workshop. They built roller coasters, catapults and simple machines out of crafting materials. The activities were intended to increase in rigor as they moved through them.

The children playfully coined themselves the Code Breakers and Chemical Kids as they completed individual tasks as a team.

Ella Gill of St. Joseph Catholic School, Olivia Conforto of Champ Cooper Elementary School, Ren Mattei of Ponchatoula Junior High, Brian Guidry of St. Josephs were apart of the Code Breakers.

The Chemical Kids consisted of Marilyn Smith of Albany Upper Elementary School, Colin Smith of Albany Middle School, Whit Mattei of Martha Vinyard Elementary School and Dakota Porter of Albany Middle School.

The two largest sources of physical and mental rigor for the children were the escape room and the human bridge.

The “escape room” was backwards. Children were tasked with finding clues around the sports park’s gymnasium and using them to break into a box by way of six locks.

“Kids are told to think outside the box, today they’ll think inside the box,” said Smith prior to the events beginning.

The other exercise required both teams to assemble themselves as a moving machine. They held up planks of wood as members of the group walked across it and pushed each other forward. If a portion of the machine “fell,” it was reassembled and the trial started over.

Participants like Gill and Mattei enjoyed working as a team and challenging themselves.

“I liked how we know how to complete activities together,” said Gill.  

“I enjoyed the code book,” said Mattei. “I learned persistence and perseverance.”

Following the program, Smith admits that she hopes to see the program improve in terms of growth and diversity in order to reach more kids in the community. She explains what the most rewarding aspect of the STEM program was.

“There’s a certain joy that’s found in the eyes of a child when they realize they can complete a task that is challenging yet rewarding,” said Smith. “To me, that makes all the time and effort worth it.”