Nurturing future scientists is a daily mission for Tracy Gray, the CEO and founder of Sankofa Global STEM Tinker Workshops.
This year, the Tinker Workshop labs served more than 2,000 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students in five schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Three years ago, Gray launched the organization to close the gap of underrepresented communities in the STEM field. In the Twi language of Ghana, “Sankofa,” means, “to reach back and get it and bring it forward.”
In January, the Obama administration announced in a White House Fact Sheet that the Sankofa Global education program is a part of a nationwide commitment to expand STEM opportunities to young learners.
When entering a New York City public school, Gray thinks of the specific demographics and academic needs of the students. She carries a science bag filled with recycled soda bottles, paper tubing and electrical gadgets.
“Before the workshop takes place, the teachers, principals, families and parents have to be on board,” Gray said. “I do an introduction to the workshop with the teachers and parents long before I have a workshop with the kids.”
The Sankofa Global STEM Tinker labs use a community approach to learning.
“The most important thing is the collaboration between all entities,” Gray said. “I don’t go into schools assuming what they need. I ask them what they need. We have those conversations so we can experience a greater amount of success.”
Elementary school classrooms are filled with families, teachers and children of color, who are less likely than their white peers to explore fields in electrical engineering, math, technology and science.
Gray, who is a scholar in early childhood education, instructs students and families to write the directions for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Because of the several answers, the participants struggle to write the directions.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time they fail,” Gray said. “You have to follow the directions exactly as they are written.”
Through trial and error, Gray teaches students the importance of the scientific method.
“It helps them [the teachers] get into the mindset of ‘how do I explain this to my students?’” Gray said. “Am I thinking of this from a student-centered perspective or an adult perspective?”
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are not the only creation at the Tinker STEM labs. The kids have designed mini racers, rockets and small replica speedboats.
“The kids [were] talking out the problems that they saw and really figuring out how they can take their little go-carts to the next level,” said Sara Avin, a third-grade math teacher at P.S. 269 in a video posted on the Tinker lab website. “Watching them go through the inquiry process … there was a lot of accountable talk going on.”
The funding of the Tinker labs is made possible through active donations, Indiegogo campaigns, social media and sponsorship opportunities on the company’s website.
“We want the next generation to be a generation of makers,” Gray said. “This is to help schools see that this is possible.”