When you drive along Michaux Parkway in North Charleston, you can gaze in awe at the enormity of the Boeing manufacturing facility.
Inside those metal hangars and well-designed offices, the work never stops. Engineers create new ways to make airplanes more efficient, computer programmers design advanced software and machinists work with robotic technology to assemble massive planes. Science and technology are taking the Lowcountry to new heights.
For Matt and Kendra Randall, fostering a passion for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in children is the only way to help the U.S. compete in the global marketplace, both technologically and economically.
Which is why in October the Randalls started a program in Mount Pleasant that helps children learn the principles and methods of engineering, architecture, math and science using Legos.
Yes, Legos. Those brightly colored plastic bricks that help kids escape and let their imaginations go wild.
Back to work
As a civil engineer for more than 11 years in Charleston, Matt Randall designed everything from subdivisions to manufacturing plants. It wasn't until his wife, Kendra, came across an old box of Legos in the garage at Matt's parents' house that the gears began to turn.
"As a stay-at-home mom with our 20-month-old son, Caden, I knew I wanted to get back into helping children and back to work," says Kendra, a self-proclaimed workaholic. "As the former PR manager at Barnes & Noble in Boston, I knew I also wanted to incorporate literacy along with the science and engineering aspect, so immediately we started working on Brick by Brick."
Within five months, they found their location in the Belle Hall Shopping Center, worked out a partnership with Lego and opened the doors to a unique creative center.
For algebra and Earth science teacher Jason Salas, learning science and math is a must.
"Math and science really do form the basis for inquiry and knowledge further in life, though its importance and function may not be completely obvious," says Salas, who teaches grades 7-8 at Charleston Catholic School and grades 6-8 at Blessed Sacrament School.
"Engineering -- mechanical, civil, chemical -- computer science, environmental,
Earth, life and physics, these are the type of math- and science-oriented thinking that will enable us to stay competitive in the world market."
Japanese students attend school 240 days a year compared with 180 days for most schools in the U.S., and are given the opportunity to cover the STEM curriculum more in-depth.
"It seems everything is going toward computers and technology; we are falling behind Japan and China as a nation. But it needs to start in the early ages so the kids can be excited about it," says Randall. "Most of the concentration is at the high school level, and we wanted them to be excited about it at the elementary and middle school ages."
Science is fun
Eight-year-old Christ Our King student Marshall Geier has only one dream: to become a Lego Engineer. He has built a water plane and hooked it up to the computer, all while learning scientific principles. When asked what he thought about it all, he used only one word, "Cool!"
But what about the girls? With the science and technology fields usually male dominated, how can STEM education be fostered in girls? Kendra incorporates her marketing savvy and a female perspective.
"At first, we thought it would be all boys who attended our classes, but it's now a good mix," she says. "On Saturdays, Girl Scout troops come in so they can receive their inventor badge. Recently, we made a hand mixer, so the girls learned how to create gears and movement. They really enjoyed it."
Salas said science and robotics programs are available at area schools.
Charleston Catholic offers a variety of academic enrichment programs such as Mad Science, Lego robotics and other similar clubs for boys and girls. "Students have made crystal gardens, scale homes, a rock cycle rap song and are now constructing an earthquake-safe model home."
Several public schools include competitive robotics teams.
Parents can check with their children's schools to find out if math- or science enrichment programs are offered.
Sharing the passion to enhance STEM education, companies such as Boeing and SPAWAR Systems Center Atlantic are building relationships with local school districts to improve the curriculum. The Education Foundation, an initiative of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, is shining a light on why science and technology will help the community grow for years to come and increase the competitiveness of the state's students.
Local schools are taking notice as well and have begun implementing the Brick by Brick enrichment program: Daniel Island Academy, the Kaleidoscope program for Charleston County Schools and, starting in 2012, schools in Mount Pleasant and West Ashley all will have the curriculum.
This makes Kendra and Matt smile.
"The best part, the kids have a great time," Kendra says. "They think they're playing with Legos, yet really they're learning the whole time."