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Robots, Coding, and More at the 2023 NAD Educators' Convention "The STEM Experience"

Three women look at a blurred-out table of science toys.

Educators survey a table full of ozobots and other science toys in “The STEM Experience” section of the North American Division's 2023 Educators' Convention Exhibit Hall. Photo: Glendon Hines, North American Division

On Monday, August 7, enthusiastic volunteers huddled in “The STEM Experience” section of the North American Division’s 2023 Educators' Convention Exhibit Hall. Sponsored by the Versacare Foundation, this initiative aimed to spark excitement among K-12 educators for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education via hands-on activities, demonstrations, and workshops. It also intended to demonstrate what students could achieve through innovation and design thinking.

Brenden Henley, a sophomore Oakwood University biomedical engineering major, was spotlighted among the volunteers that first day. He had accompanied his dad, Robert Henley, director of the Florida Conference Institute for Leadership and Innovation (FCILI), to share how early exposure to STEM helped him discover his calling. The humble young man prayed for the group, then, after some prompting, told his story before the crowds arrived.

“This summer, I was at GE Healthcare working on software for the MRI patients,” student Henley said, to claps and cheers. He continued, “I put the experience I had [at FCILI] on my resume.” At the engineering expo where he was hired, he also brought a stroke rehab device he’d created in high school and turned into a business; the device uses tactile signals to remind patients to stand up straight. “Once they saw that I’d used Arduino [coding software], they hired me right away.”

Science-Based Show and Tell

The exhibit comprised three segments: an information section featuring secondary and post-secondary STEM programs; “the tinker space,” where elementary educators could learn about and play with STEM toys; and a high school area including demonstrations and hands-on activities. Notably, on Aug. 9, the final day of the exhibits, participants could take home all the STEM games on display through a giveaway.

A woman behind a table speaks to three women and a man in a busy exhibit hall

"The STEM Experience” section of the North American Division’s 2023 Educators' Convention could best be described as a science-based show and tell. Photo: Glendon Hines, North American Division

The STEM Experience could best be described as a science-based show and tell. On the elementary side, in the “tinker space,” educators tried out various STEM toys. For instance, they could program the movement of ozobots, or mini-robots, across a mat using color coding markers or simple software, build circuits following step-by-step written instructions, or create masterpieces with magnetic building blocks.

Visitors also learned how to integrate science into different subjects, such as programming an ozobot to “travel” across a map. “I’m a humanities teacher but believe in STEM across the curriculum. I’ve gone to schools and worked with teachers who have used it for math, science, social studies, Bible, everything,” said elementary organizer Betty Nugent, FCILI innovation, STEM, and project-based learning trainer and coach.

High school demonstrations included virtual reality using Unity software; robotics coding via VEXcode; information on EXSEED, Loma Linda University’s STEM leadership certificate program for K-12 educators; the MakerBot Sketch 3D Printer; TinkerCad, a design, electronics, and coding software; the brain-computer interface — i.e., using software to control objects with your brain; STEM courses at Walla Walla, Oakwood, and Andrews universities, and more.

Fostering Empathy and Leadership Through Innovation

An awe-inspiring high school project on display was a student-designed solar car, which goes 40 miles an hour and will be the only Adventist offering in a national high school competition next summer. Ronny Pittman, director of innovation for the North Tampa Christian school, asserted that his only contribution was teaching the students welding. “It’s 100 percent student-built. All the designing, cutting, welding, CAD … that’s all them.”

The project also illustrated tenets of design thinking, a human-centered mindset leading to innovation. For instance, Pittman's students learned welding through community service; specifically, they converted a trailer to feed the homeless for an organization called SALT in Orlando, Florida. Design thinking asks, “What problem needs to be solved?” Once the problem is identified through surveys, the following steps are brainstorming, creating solutions, testing and assessing prototypes, and refining the design.

Visitors also learned about the exhibit's principal partner, the Florida Conference Institute for Leadership and Innovation. This unique center combines computing, industrial design, social innovation/invention, and entrepreneurship, founded upon design thinking. Here, K-12 students experience self-driven, project-based learning. Henley explained, “Innovation empowers students to think of themselves as experts capable of harnessing their creativity and using their knowledge and skills to develop mastery and solve real problems in a multi-year context.”

The heart of the center is found in Jeremiah 1:5, paraphrased by Henley as “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you to be a [leader] to the nations” (Jer. 1:5, NIV). Accordingly, it aims to level the playing field for groups not typically engaged in STEM, such as women and minorities. For all students, FCILI’s real-world experience opens doors to “career opportunities they’d never dream of.”

Courtney Brown, middle school math/science/STEM director at Tacoma Academy Preparatory School and STEM Experience participant, stated, “I was fascinated to see the students working with Robert on coding and robotics projects. STEM [provides] a platform for collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking. I’m excited to adopt innovation and design thinking to elevate the learning experience at my school.”

Brown and others affirmed Nugent’s greatest wish for the exhibit. “Brenden has quite a story,” Nugent told her volunteers in the pre-event huddle. “We’re trying to make more of those stories. That’s what we need. That’s why we’re here.”


Unity virtual reality software —

VEXcode —

EXSEED summer conference —

TinkerCad —

Ozobots —

Adventist Robotics —

Florida Conference Institute of Innovation —

Mission: Invent (Andrews University K-12 innovation initiative) —