By Ellen Tsaprailis

As Ottawa youth transitioned to learning online until schools reopen, specialized educational programs have been finding creative ways to continue their programs.

Carleton University’s Virtual Ventures (VV) has adapted its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education by delivering materials to students at their homes, as well as providing free do-it-yourself projects online.

One successful program that VV has now switched to offer at home is Link<ed>, a partnership with Ottawa’s commerce company Shopify and the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa that offers weekly workshops focused on digital skills development.

Adam Joiner

Adam Joiner

Adam Joiner is CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa (BGCO). VV and Shopify had approached the BGCO about building a program that would engage and interest their youth in technology literacy and coding.

“The Boys and Girls Club is all about bringing opportunities to young people who might not have access, so this was a wonderful fit,” says Joiner.

“We piloted the program back in January 2018 with one clubhouse location. Now, two years later, we’ve been delivering workshops in six out of seven Boys and Girls Club locations across Ottawa every week in 12-week cycles,” says VV Director Christine Riddell.

Brittney Oberfeld is Shopify’s Social Impact Lead for Computing Education and has worked closely with Riddell and VV since 2017 when they started collaborating on how they could merge VV’s engaging content with Shopify’s industry knowledge to directly impact youth.

Brittney Oberfeld

Brittney Oberfeld

“I had been working closely with the BGCO and VV since the fall of 2017 to ensure we were creating a program specifically tailored for the BGCO’s unique drop-in-style environment,” says Oberfeld.

Bringing technology education directly to underserved communities was Oberfeld’s goal in creating the Link<ed> program.

Two weeks into the Ontario government’s self-isolation directive, Oberfeld and Riddell knew they needed to find a way to continue providing education for their participants.

“The BGCO was shut down and unable to support youth like they normally could. The at-home kit idea came up as an alternative solution to bring Link<ed> directly to the kids. Christine and I worked non-stop over three days, hammering out all the details, making orders, designing the kits, with the goal in mind that we wanted the kits to be in hand within a week,” says Oberfeld.

Five hundred youth accessed the Link<ed> program on a regular basis, says Joiner, and now 100 of these at-home kits were delivered directly to families in early April.

The kits contained a snap circuit electronics kit with batteries, an activity book the team developed with 20 pages of activities focused on digital skills and engineering, cut-out templates, extra activity sheets for families with multiple children and craft materials including coloured pencils and tape.

Virtual Ventures Helping Local Youth Keep Learning STEM at Home

Families are Happy with Kits

Joiner is pleased with the reaction from participating families.

“The kits have been a huge hit,” says Joiner.

“Members are loving them and the impact is so large at a time when young people have little options of more things to do. The members were also so excited to receive something in the mail. Something just for them.”

VV and Shopify have started piloting an online version of Link<ed> for BCGO members and are exploring other at-home kit options.

VV Director Christine Riddell

VV Director Christine Riddell

To engage all youth in STEM activities while at home, VV has been posting free content daily on their website, aptly named Stay at Home with STEM.

“We are posting daily STEM activities that use online or free downloadable software, or “unplugged” (off-computer) activities that use household items,” says Riddell.

“We wanted to provide some at-home fun learning activities for our youth. This is such a challenging time for all, and knowing how bored a lot of these youth are at home—and how hard it is for parents to keep them entertained—we wanted to share some fun but educational projects and activities to help out.”

Activities that do not involve computers include Lego coding obstacle courses, bionic hands, slime, lava lamps, tin foil boats and straw roller-coasters. Free online software provides the opportunity to engage in 3D circuits, piskel animations, Scratch coding basics and storytelling with Twine.

VV is a non-profit organization in the Faculty of Engineering and Design.

Virtual Ventures Helping Local Youth Keep Learning STEM at Home