Lowell’s after-school program aims to ‘level the playing field’ for kids interested in STEM

LOWELL – Olu Ibrahim remembers the intense curiosity and joy of building her first computer with her father when she was in second grade. As a former teacher turned education advocate, Ibrahim hopes to instill the same love for STEM fields in the next generation of leaders.

Ibrahim is the founder and CEO of Kids in Tech, a Lowell-based nonprofit founded in 2016 that provides after-school programs in science, technology, engineering, math, and other related subjects for kids ages 8-14.

In partnership with the Lowell Housing Authority, Kids in Tech is offer these programs specifically for children living in North Common Village and Highland Parkway, both LHA properties, starting Oct. 17 — ideally the start of Massachusetts STEM Week. The club returns after a COVID-induced hiatus.

For Ibrahim, reaching children from all walks of life and of all socio-economic statuses is key to ensuring everyone has the same chance of success. And by targeting older primary and middle school students, Ibrahim said the program can make children more “STEM confident” before they reach high school.

“I believe talent comes from everywhere and every child deserves access to it,” Ibrahim said. “Every kid, with early exposure, deserves a chance to know, ‘Oh, wow, I can be a coder. I can be an engineer. I can be a graphic designer. I can do all of these things.

Kids in Tech is running two 10-week modules, the first of which will focus on coding and robotics. Participants will be able to work in online coding software where they can program their own robot to follow different orders and create their own fictional restaurant. Students will also gain hands-on experience with circuits and learn more about electricity later.

At LHA, there is room for 15 children in each of the two programs.

Victoria Tucker, program manager at Kids in Tech, said students are encouraged to solve open-ended problems and make mistakes – opportunities they may not have in their college courses. In a mixed-age group, Tucker added that it will be a “unique” experience for the older children to mentor the younger ones and for everyone to work on activities together.

Tucker said she hopes the program will “level the playing field for young people” and foster their creativity.

“We want to expose, excite, educate, you know, empower kids to learn those skills and give them a platform to see themselves in a STEM career path,” Tucker said. “Not all of our students even know these job opportunities exist, and over time we anticipate this will only become more and more of a STEM-driven economy.”

The program expanded to Boston public schools this summer, now having a total of eight different tech clubs between the two cities and serving about 100 children. Tucker said the organization will also work with Lowell’s Coalition for a Better Acre and multiple sites within Lowell Public Schools during this school year.

After working as a Boston Public Schools teacher for two years, Ibrahim said she recognized the need for engaging and interactive educational clubs that hold children’s attention. STEM poses particular challenges for some students, Ibrahim said, but with this particular model, she wants to combat that.

“Early exposure is key to maintaining children’s interest in STEM because children become interested and lose interest very quickly, especially girls,” she said. “Hopefully, without a traditional approach until they hit high school, they know you can create things… They have the tools to do it.”

Lowell Housing Authority executive director Gary Wallace wrote in an emailed statement that he was delighted to see the program returning and that the many volunteers and service members are presenting science topics to young students.

“The Housing Authority is pleased to partner with Kids in Tech to bring these unique learning opportunities to LHA ​​youth,” Wallace wrote. “Their organization’s commitment to combining the STEM curriculum with hands-on learning helps excite our young learners to pursue future careers in STEM fields.”

The town of Lowell has a rich tradition of “innovation and technology,” Ibrahim said, and Kids in Tech aims to harness that spirit by providing learning resources and dedicating the time and energy to instruction of children here.

“He sees a need in the community and says, ‘Hey, let’s try to make sure every kid has a high-quality computer education, partner with community sites across the city,'” Ibrahim said. “Our hope is to open children’s eyes to how technology is integrated into everything and how they can build and become innovators in their own lives.”