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Seattle ‘Big-Brained Superheroes Club’ grooms next generation of science superstars

A few "big-brains" work on their projects at the Big-Brained Superheroes Club at Yesler Community Center.
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Walk into the Big-Brained Superheroes Club headquarters on a weekday afternoon, and you’ll find an abundance of fun. This after-school program at Seattle’s Yesler Community Center is grooming the next generation of science superstars.

A plastic tree emerges from the table in the middle of the room and extends to the ceiling. Glow-in-the-dark jellyfish decorate it like Christmas tree ornaments. Circuit-board magnets line a chalkboard. Stacks of paint, crayons, robots, and gadgets of all kinds cover the counters.

Kids are making purple, orange and green water out of dried-out markers in one corner.

“I’m going to make a rocket,” said 6-year-old Weris Mohamed holding a plastic bottle.

“I got this thingy that you put in a bottle,” she explains. “Then we drop it outside fast and you run back in and you see the rocket and it goes ‘BOOM!'”

Meredith Wenger runs the club.

“We require that they try hard, be kind and have fun,” she says. “That’s embedded in our big-brain oath.”

Weris recites it for me: “I, big-brained superhero, passionately promise to try hard, to be kind, and have fun.”

Wenger began as a volunteer at the community center five years ago, just to help kids with their homework. Eventually, that evolved into the big-brains program.

“The whole goal is to get kids embedded in space where they can engage in what we call recreational nerdiness: science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.”

It’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), or “STEAM,” as Wenger calls it, adding “arts” into the mix. But she’s very clear that she’s not a teacher. She’s a facilitator. The kids drive the projects. She and the volunteers steer them.

“We’re always thinking, ‘Okay, how can we nerd this up a little bit?'” she said.

For example, a four and five-year-old are outside blowing bubbles. But around here, that kind of thing turns into a lot more.

“First, they came up with an argument about why they want to do bubbles,” Wenger explains, “Then, we decided to do ‘mubbles,’ which is basically adding math and bubbles.”

Wenger says “we” because she and the kids figured that out together. And now the kids are working on their project. They first count every bubble they’re able to catch &#8212 one, two, three, four. Then, they move up to twos &#8212 two, four, six, eight. Then threes, as high as they can go.

This is one of at least a dozen projects going on around me. I walk past the electronic binary counter three girls made, with funding in part from Google.

A nine-year-old walks up to me and shows me a circuit board attached to a wooden box with a pink rubber band. It makes super-cool noises. She says he hasn’t decided what she’s going to do with it yet.

Another 9-year-old, Car-ree has a small, plastic, white, astronaut-looking person in her hand.

“It’s a robot,” she explains. “I’m trying to fix it because its knees and elbows aren’t working properly.”

Getting kids into STEM education has been a push in the U.S. for several years, from the White House to legislators in Olympia to the tech community. There’s a downright urgency to get more American scientists, engineers, mathematicians into the workforce.

Research points to after-school programs as a crucial way to get kids interested in these topics. But no program is like this one.

“It’s a place where you can expand your creativity and your mind,” said 12-year-old Mohamed.

As an example, he explains, he built a watch.

“I put it together and soldered it, things like that,” he said.

“What I plan to be doing after college is to be a computer scientist,” he said. “It’s inspired me to do things with computers and learn new things that I haven’t learned before.”

Mohamed’s mom is one of six members of the “Big-Brains” Board of Directors. She’s originally from Somalia. Wenger says 98 percent of the kids are kids from immigrant families, mostly East Africa.

She and the volunteers and parents turned the Big-Brained Superheroes Club into a 501c3 non-profit last year and are working on getting more funding. And they’re always looking for more volunteers.

For information, check out the Big-Brained Superheroes Club website.

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