By GREGORY ZELLER //
There are lots of connections these days at We Connect the Dots, the Cold Spring Harbor nonprofit focused on educating the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers.
In the four years since founder Laurie Carey thought it up, and just over a year since it officially launched, the not-for-profit has completed its first international outreach – a January code-a-thon that involved young programmers at three different locations, including a team in Australia – and has now opened its first satellite office in upstate Kingston.
And more expansion is on the way, according to program manager Stephen Sobierajski, a former teacher who’s heading that Hudson Valley chapter and sees the We Connect the Dots mission – to excite and inform students about STEAM careers (for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) – as global in nature.
“The greatest thing we were able to accomplish this year was our international hackathon, which was a real achievement,” Sobierajski said about its 48-hour coding marathon that tasked students in Brooklyn, Pennsylvania and the Western Australian capital of Perth with creating and building a website that “served some social need or addressed the human problem.”
“The students received guided instruction and worked in teams throughout the weekend,” Sobierajski noted. “The results were really fantastic – they came up with some terrific philanthropic ideas.”
The results also proved that We Connect the Dots’ goals and methods cross not only state lines but international borders. To that end, the organization has initiated several new expansion initiatives, including the creation of the organization’s first domestic office located outside New York State – coming soon to South Carolina, home base of Michael Teal, We Connect the Dots’ operations director.
Carey – a 30-year tech-field veteran, including a decade as a technology strategist at Microsoft – first conceived the STEAM-driven organization in 2013 while participating at Harvard’s immersive executive education program.
The founder, who’s made a career of showing state and corporate information officers how to leverage technology to their best advantage, was determined to prepare students for the rigors of the tech-heavy 21st century workplace by providing real-world experiences through innovative programs and active partnerships with major-league tech enterprises.
In 2015, Carey also focused her decades of experience – and innate understanding of technology’s role in modern industry – on adult learners, launching the Cold Spring Harbor-based for-profit Laurie Carey Consulting, a certified Women’s Business Enterprise that offers tech-centric coaching and professional development.
But it is the “experiential education” offered by We Connect the Dots that will have the greatest impact on current and future economies, according to Sobierajski.
“All of the learning opportunities we provide for students are project-based and brain-based,” the program manager noted. “Students get instruction on a particular subject, they participate in a project and they present to us and to groups of their peers to share what they’ve learned.”
One big factor setting We Connect the Dots apart from most STEM programs – minus the A – is its application of art to engineering, robotics and other scientific disciplines. Sobierajski, who earned a master’s degree in English at SUNY New Paltz and was a composition instructor there before connecting with We Connect the Dots, noted a particular emphasis on the notion that “creative thought is important, no matter what you’re doing.”
“The ability to think creatively is generally honed in some kind of artistic effort,” he said. “We’re trying to get these kids to think expressively and apply their art to their future careers.”
Those principles will infuse the new Kingston chapter and the forthcoming South Carolina office, and will also be on full display during CreatingSTEAM, an immersive, 10-day program covering everything from coding to 3D printing to robotics scheduled to kick off July 18 at Microsoft’s New York City offices.
Featuring 64 students from the Greater New York region, the program will include keynotes and panel discussions with engineers, mathematicians and other science-oriented professionals. It will also represent that latest international foray for We Connect the Dots, Sobierajski noted, with participants from Perth slated to join in.
“Each day will feature a different theme focused on STEAM,” he said. “Students will work together to come up with a business concept – again, something that serves some kind of global human need – while they learn how to use software tools, learn lessons in robotics and engineering and participate in team-building workshops.”
With other educational programs and more expansion in mind – including, potentially, a more permanent We Connect the Dots presence down under – the organization is also “going aggressively” after outside funding in 2016, Sobierajski said. To date, the only external funding the organization has received has been through private donations and two contributions totaling $25,000 from the Claire Friedlander Family Foundation, but that’s about to change in a big way.
This month, We Connect the Dots is launching a 60-day campaign through the international crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, with a goal of raising $1 million for programming and staffing expansions.
“We’re going hard for a million dollars this year,” Sobierajski noted. “We want to fund programs like this around the world for children who can’t join us here.
“We’re also looking for a little magic from STEAM industries and corporations,” he added. “We reaching out to companies like Microsoft and others in the technology industries to say, ‘Look, these are the kinds of things students need to know to get jobs in the 21st century, so please … help us help them.’”