Mismatch robots built towering stacks of red and blue blocks. Miniature space capsules floated down from several stories above. And a group of children were making the decisions. It may have looked like a science-fiction future, but it is also the reality of the professional future.

In an effort to inspire students to pursue the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, about 240 middle schoolers from Sarasota County attended the STEMsmart Summit in May, sponsored by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and hosted by the Ringling College of Art and Design. The daylong event brought students together to collaborate in teams on science- and technology-based challenges designed to demonstrate how the work they’re doing in school applies to the real world, representing the kind of careers they can have. “We got to use space science,” says Will Egan, a student from Booker Middle School. “I love space science and I want to continue it with a career.”

“I’m extremely impressed with the skill level and knowledge of these students,” says Mark Pritchett, the senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “I would hire some of these students now.” Some students worked in teams to develop new drinkware products aimed at 12- to 14-year-olds for Tervis, working through the entire process, from creating a product idea and brief to pitching a prototype design and marketing plan. While they were imagining tumbler designs, 60 other students were creating model Orion space capsules, a challenge organized by Texas Instruments Education Technology. The VEX Robotics competition, the third challenge, tested robots designed and built by school engineering teams. Tasked with mobility challenges that include carrying blocks and building towers of them within the arena, the robots traveled both autonomously with programming and by remote control. The projects encouraged them to “think outside the box, rely on each others’ brains and accomplish a task,” says Page Dettmann, the executive director of Sarasota County Middle Schools. It was a heart-warming experience seeing so many adults from the business community work to mentor the students, Dettman says. At the end of the day, seeing how proud the students were of their accomplishments was the best part of the event.

“It’s almost embarrassing,” Pritchett says, comparing these students and their accomplishments to his own at that age. “They’re articulate and they work well in teams – the future looks bright.” The summit marked the end of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s five-year science and math education initiative, which focused on integrating new technologies into Sarasota County classrooms. Moving forward, the foundation plans to expand the 21st-century school initiative and the lessons they’ve learned to language and social studies classrooms too. “We need to change our mindsets that technology is something you need to put away when you walk in the classroom,” Pritchett says. “Technology is our friend.”


Photo Credit Home Page: Middle schoolers from all over Sarasota County gather for the STEMSmart Summit; Is there a doctor in the house? Mark Pritchett PhD, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Peter Balyta PhD, Texas Instruments, Page Dettmann PhD, Sarasota County Schools and Dr. Larry Thompson, Ringling College of Art and Design, helped welcome students to the summit.