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‘It’s the way of the future’

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Mekhi Bradford, 9, a fourth-grader at Tomasita Elementary School, and Tomasita second-grader, Leilani Baty, 8, use toothpicks and jelly beans to build a structure based on a photo they were given. They were participating in a STEM exercise Friday at City Hall. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

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Albuquerque first lady Elizabeth Kistin Keller talks with Aiden Brown, 6, and older brother Kalen Brown, 17, as they use toothpicks and jelly beans to build a structure as part of a STEM activity in City Hall on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A group of 20 kids on Friday sat around a table in the Mayor’s Conference Room in City Hall, using toothpicks and jelly beans to construct the outlines of buildings, cars and geometric forms.

It was part of a STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – exercise for the kids, many of whom participate in the Saturday Science and Math Academy program, and who will participate in a February competition to build a city out of Lego blocks.

Their host for the morning exercise and the subsequent tour of City Hall was Albuquerque first lady Elizabeth Kistin Keller, herself firmly grounded in STEM as a complex systems analyst at Sandia National Laboratories.

“This is part of a wider initiative with the city of Albuquerque to make sure we’re working with partners across the city to think about how to support each other and, more importantly, how do we step up for kids,” Kisten Keller said. “We need to fill the gaps after school, over the summer, on the weekends and over the holiday breaks, so that kids have opportunities to be inspired and engaged in safe places.”

She noted that both she and the mayor grew up in Albuquerque, and “were lucky to have lots of mentors who got us engaged in different topics.” Giving kids access to STEM programs will allow them to meet mentors in those fields, and help them understand that “they have pathways to be part of that,” and eventually have careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Albuquerque Public Schools teacher Debra Johns is director of the Saturday Science and Math Academy program, which she founded more than 30 years ago and is supported by her nonprofit Rio Lightning.

“We want to make sure that all of our students go to college, and today STEM is the mechanism,” she said. Since the program’s inception, the focus has been in those areas – long before it was formally referred to as STEM. The community-based program is run completely by volunteers and meets on Saturdays in the engineering building on the University of New Mexico campus. At any given time, 80 to 100 kids are in the program, which is open to all students from kindergarten through high school.

The tour of City Hall, Johns said, is to give the participating students an opportunity to take photos and get a sense of what is housed in the building, and ask questions about what are the necessary components of a metropolis. This research, she said, will aid them when they compete in the February Lego competition to construct a futuristic city.

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Aiden Brown, a first grader at Tomasita Elementary School, and brother Kalen Brown, 17, a senior at Manzano High School, use jelly beans and toothpicks to create the form of the iconic Frontier Restaurant, part of a STEM exercise in City Hall on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Maria Bradford enrolled her 9-year-old child in the Saturday Science and Math Academy program “because of the importance of introducing STEM, particularly to African American and Hispanic kids, as early as possible,” she said. “It’s the way of the future and our kids need to be tech-savvy in order to get jobs in the future.”

Her son, Mekhi Bradford, a fourth-grader at Tomasita Elementary School, said “I enjoy it because most things now are digital and you need all the things in STEM – you need science, technology, engineering and math – and not like just one of them a day, but all of them every day.”

Guele Wilondja, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at Valley High School, said he has an interest in math and has been in the Saturday Science and Math program for about two years. “It’s fun and we do things like build remote-control cars and robots.”

When he grows up, he said, he wants to teach math – but only after a career as a professional soccer player.

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