Inside a Startup After-School STEAM Program
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Episode Show Notes
Founding an education business comes with challenges and rewards, far beyond the financials. Guest EJ Zain talks about this first-hand. EJ founded the startup Maker Kids Lab, LLC, in Austin, Texas. Her very new startup runs after-school programs for middle schoolers in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). In her lessons, Zain and her team of helper-teachers guide students of different ages to work together on hands-on, creative projects. She discusses her motivations for starting Maker Kids Lab as a parent, her strategies for engaging kids, and her hopes for creating a business with a social impact.
Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.
Check out the book and ebook Engineer’s Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong, on Amazon, Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook, and other retailers.
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Pius Wong 0:00
It's July 3rd, 2017, and this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast. What makes an after school program for kids succeed? To try to find out, I visited EJ Zain, founder of the startup Maker Kids Lab in Austin, Texas. At Maker Kids Lab, EJ teaches hands-on science, technology, engineering, arts and math to kids of mixed ages in her after-school program. She shares a lot of what she's learned starting a new business in kids' education.
Pius Wong 0:40
I'm your host, Pius Wong. I visited EJ Zain in a South Austin elementary school a little while ago, in the middle of one of her classes for her after-school program called Maker Kids Lab.
EJ Zain (clip) 0:52
Each of you guys is going to get a power source. What do I mean by power source?
Child 1 0:55
Child 2 0:56
Can we draw on this?
Pius Wong 0:57
About twenty kids were grouped around different tables in the colorful classroom, as EJ started explaining what they were going to build that day.
EJ Zain (clip) 1:06
Do not be rough with these. You only get one motor.
[singing] One motor.
EJ Zain (clip) 1:11
[singing] One motor.
[singing] One motor.
Pius Wong 1:16
One student was in the middle of figuring out how to connect a circuit together.
Now all I need to do is -
Can I help you?
No, I'm done. I'm almost done.
Pius Wong 1:34
That afternoon EJ had three young adult helpers roaming around the room guiding kids to put together what EJ called a Scribblebot, a makeshift device made of a styrofoam cup, a small vibrating motor, a battery, masking tape, ballpoint pens, and other household objects. When kids connected the battery, the whole Scribblebots would shake and bounce quickly up and down on top of a piece of white paper on the table, peppering the paper with colorful and messy dotted patterns.
Pius Wong (clip) 2:06
[sounds of Scribblebot motor vibration] Your -- Amber is connecting the battery to the motors, and it's scribbling something.
Pius Wong 2:19
I spoke to Miss Riley, one of the helpers, who confirmed that classes were always as noisy and kinetic as today, with the kids constantly moving around and doing things.
Riley (clip) 2:30
I've always been around kids. So it's really easy for me to teach them. I have four younger siblings. So it kind of comes natural to me helping a bunch of kids at once. [laughs]
Pius Wong (clip) 2:38
Sure, yeah, I noticed, like, when I came in here, this is kind of freaking me out.
Riley (clip) 2:41
Yeah, it's a little overwhelming.
Pius Wong (clip) 2:43
But it looked like you all were calm.
Riley (clip) 2:45
Nicole (clip) 2:48
Liking kids is definitely a big plus.
Pius Wong 2:51
That was Miss Nicole, another helper who explained what it takes to be good at teaching kids in a situation like this.
Nicole (clip) 2:58
Just, like, letting them learn themselves, and then helping out. Don't try to do it for them. Because if you try to do it for them, then the learning process is taken away. But it's really fun to watch and just see how their brain turns. You know, it's like, oh, if I do this, it'll touch. If I do this, it'll touch.
Can you help me do this? It fell off.
Nicole (clip) 3:14
It fell off?
Pius Wong 3:15
She found a moment to explain to me the big picture here through all this activity.
Nicole (clip) 3:20
I think like in school, you have a curriculum that you learn. After-school programs are to still enhance the learning process, but to have fun at the same time. So like, we have a color robot. So you're learning how to -- you still have fun with it. But you're still learning how to build a robot. Granted, I'm saying school is not fun. I'm not saying that.
Pius Wong (clip) 3:39
Some people say that.
Nicole (clip) 3:39
Some people say that, but I'm not saying that.
Pius Wong (clip) 3:40
I know it's a shock.
Nicole (clip) 3:42
Shocker. But I just think, because they get to interact with kids that aren't their own age, and the older kids help out the younger kids a lot, and so it's a different learning environment than being in a class full of kids your own age.
Pius Wong 3:55
These kids joined the program after hearing about it from their parents and their friends.
This is my first semester this.
Pius Wong (clip) 4:02
Oh, wow. And why did you join?
Because my friends, Claire, encouraged me to do it.
Pius Wong (clip) 4:09
So would you have done it, if, like, your friend and tell you that it was cool?
Well, if I didn't know that this was here, then I wouldn't have known that I could do this.
Pius Wong (clip) 4:19
But what do you think now that you're in it?
It's awesome. Because we made our own clock, a very -- an actual working clock.
Pius Wong 4:26
By the looks and sounds of it, EJ and her team at Maker Kids Lab were engaging these kids.
Pius Wong (clip) 4:31
So you don't just do robots, you do other stuff?
Child 2 4:34
A lot of other stuff.
Pius Wong (clip) 4:37
And what would you tell other kids about this program?
Child 2 4:41
It's awesome. [sounds of motor vibrating] It is.
Pius Wong 4:50
I sat down with EJ later to talk about her new venture. Nicole, one of EJ's helpers, joined partway.
EJ Zain 5:00
My name is EJ Zain, and I Run Maker Kids Lab. It's an after-school and maker hour program that happens at this location. I started Maker Kids Lab because I saw a need for it at our home school, which is the school Baranoff Elementary. I asked for a makerspace, and I was told no, and I just am not good with taking no for an answer. And I asked around, asked my friends, do you want a makerspace here? And so this is my solution.
Pius Wong 5:40
And for Maker Kids Lab, can you talk a little bit about the history of it, how it started?
EJ Zain 5:45
Sure. Basically, I've been making all my life, as many moms do, especially with four kids. And I think it was maybe when my son was born -- he's eight now -- I really started getting into more technical aspects of making, like circuits and engineering-type projects, which I had never tried before. [laughs] I have three girls and one boy. And so that kind of got me making and got me really interested in making with kids. And the maker movement. And I didn't even know there was a movement. Like, oh, this is called something? You know. And so that's how that started with doing those projects. And I've just been always someone who, you know -- I don't think that projects are out of my reach. I feel like if there's an Arduino project that I want to attempt or a soldering project, or you know, carpentry, I'm going to learn how to do it. So I'm trying to, at least with this class, I'm trying to give students confidence in their STEAM abilities, STEAM being obviously, you know [laughs].
Pius Wong 7:07
Yeah, the people listening should know. I've used that acronym a lot.
EJ Zain 7:10
Pius Wong 7:10
But yes, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.
EJ Zain 7:14
Yes. And I really encouraged girls, when I started this, to enroll, because they they seem to have the arts down, you know? If I could generalize, they seem to have the art down. But in terms of science and tech, I feel like there's just a little gap. And so when I asked around -- I do my research before I start anything, any project -- but I asked around and I said, Well, when is the soonest they could have a makerspace? Before I started this, I was told middle school, and that's a maybe, even. Depends on the middle school. Depends on if someone's going to always be there to teach it, going to have the funds, going to have the curriculum and the space. These schools are overcrowded. The public schools are overcrowded, a lot of them. Some of them aren't. But this one here happens to be. And so they don't even have a dedicated space just for making. And I am just a problem-solver. And I encourage my students to problem-solve. And I think the elementary school is a place where not only do you go to learn academics, but you should learn ways to help yourself, ways to feel empowered, to feel like things are within your reach. And I don't know if that's always in the traditional curriculum. And so I do also teach entrepreneurism early. I encourage them to be charitable. I encourage them to think about other aspects of not just a business as in an idea -- you know, like making something and going to market -- but you know, think about what you consume versus what you're making yourself. Think about the global aspects of consumerism, and you know, in layman's terms, obviously.
Pius Wong 9:06
This is, this is a business, but it's actually also really in your community, is what it's sounding like.
EJ Zain 9:11
Absolutely. It is a business first and foremost. But, that said, I really wanted it to be, you know, kind of a mini movement of the maker movement, and which I am hoping that if there is another adult that wants to have this at their school, because they were told, no, we can't, then I want to be able to say, Hey, you know, come talk to me. Let's get one going. And it does involve a commitment.
Pius Wong 9:26
That brings me to my next question. What are some of the challenges that you faced? You kind of touched on it already. But what are the challenges in getting something like this going? And if a parent or somebody wanted to get your program or just another program? What should they expect to overcome?
EJ Zain 10:00
Well, first, you'd be surprised. Even in Austin being a tech city, how many parents when you talk about maker culture -- And I wasn't too far ahead of this either. You know, I didn't know what I was doing was maker movement stuff. So there's still a lot of parents that go, What is that? They still call my class, like lab. It's Makers Kids Lab, but they'll say it's lab, you know? And a lot of them Don't know. And a lot of them do. A lot of them very savvy, and are very like, Oh, you know, is there a waiting list? Because I want to make sure my kid is in this program. So you run the gamut. And I'm happy to just fill that space after school with extended learning time. But making it fun. That's our big emphasis, because they've been in school all day. I encourage them. they can get up and walk around. They can get up and help each other. We do the four C's of project-based learning. So I encourage collaboration, communication. They've got the creativity down. They are so good. And the critical thinking. We work on those aspects. I tell them, you know, let's think about a design, like, what do you have in mind for -- like, when we did a fiber optic lesson, I said, what could you do? Like, what do you use day-to-day that we use fiber optics? And what could you do with fiber optics? I just try to get them, you know.
Pius Wong 11:29
Is that your background? It sounds like you talk like a teacher, in a way, both in the classroom, but the way you're talking about it now, I'm thinking, Oh, that reminds me of a bunch of teachers that I've met, because engineers don't always talk like that.
EJ Zain 11:41
No, I find -- It's funny that you say that, because a lot of people think I am a teacher, and I used to substitute teach in another state. My background -- I don't have a formal engineering degree. I just have been doing this for a while. Like, I've made lamps for my kids. I've made -- My son wanted a birthday cake, fire truck birthday cake with working lights. And I figured out how to do it. And all the kids at the party were like, "Mom, make that for me," to their mom. They're like, thanks a lot, EJ. So that's kind of my -- yeah, so I come at this with: let's have fun. And let's engage these kids, so they don't go away thinking, gosh, that was just so hard and boring. Like, I want them to think that was challenging and stimulating. And I'm proud of myself because of "Look what I made." And I didn't think I could do that. And now I know what a motor is, or I know what a circuit is. Or I have faith that if something breaks in my own home, that I can fix it instead of calling someone. And it's just all these little things that add up to just a bigger, bigger picture thinking, you know? A holistic view of: Who am I in this world? What can I contribute? What can I make money off of? What can I, you know, what can I do to be charitable and help those that are not as fortunate as myself? What can I build? What can I be an entrepreneur or an intrepreneur? If I work for a company, can I do something and get a patent while I'm at this company? You know, there's just -- there's a lot of little minds here that are forming. And sometimes the parents don't have either the resources or the time. I mean, these kids also are scheduled. You know, depending on what school you're at, these kids -- this one in particular, these kids are scheduled. They've got something after school, they've got sports, they've got clubs, they've got all kinds of stuff. You go to Title 1 schools, it might not be the same thing. And down the road, I would like to also make this available to those kids, you know, because those parents need that help, too.
Pius Wong 13:55
Yeah, I was wondering -- I guess right now, parents pay for this completely?
EJ Zain 13:59
Yes, they do.
Pius Wong 14:00
So how can you make something like this available to more kids?
EJ Zain 14:03
Yeah, I've thought about that a lot. And I think the best way would probably be to go either public benefit corporation or nonprofit, have a nonprofit arm. Hence makerkidslab.org. Got that too, but just in case. And, you know, partner up with foundations. I'm also -- I do a little bit of grants writing for Junior League on the side. And I used to be a marketing director. So I'm not bad with the writing aspect. I'm very comfortable writing for grants if I have to do that. I haven't even gone that way yet. This has been fully like a business.
Pius Wong 14:49
And I'm sure that alone takes a lot of effort.
EJ Zain 14:51
Pius Wong 14:52
Doing more grant writing.
EJ Zain 14:53
Right. It takes a lot of time. And hence the snail-like pace of just this school and then another school in the fall. Which will be in Buda, Elm Grove Elementary, which surprisingly, when I visited Elm Grove Elementary, they already have a makerspace in the library.
Pius Wong 14:53
EJ Zain 14:53
Yes. And they're literally ten minutes away from here. But that's an Hays County.
EJ Zain 15:19
So they get different funding, I would assume.
EJ Zain 15:24
Pius Wong 15:24
EJ Zain 15:25
And it's very well done. And if you look on my Instagram, you'll see pictures of their makerspace. And I applaud that because the what I've seen is, just when the administration is behind making, they make sure it's a priority, and the parents just love it.
Pius Wong 15:42
So even though -- Do you think the parents are different? Are they more aware of that?
EJ Zain 15:48
Well, based on the research that I've conducted, parents here versus parent there, it seems like that demographic slightly younger. So I don't know if that has something to do with it.
Pius Wong 16:02
EJ Zain 16:04
Yeah, so I know that the property taxes are higher at Hays, and I heard their coffers are quite full compared to our school district.
Pius Wong 16:12
So they're more willing to fund probably a makerspace or anything like that.
EJ Zain 16:18
Yep. And so each school is different, you know? So you just have to work with what you can. My kids go here. And I think they enjoy the fact that they can share their projects with their friends.
Pius Wong 16:33
Oh, yeah, like talking to the kids randomly in there -- It's interesting talking to kids, because again, I don't see that that often. But yeah, they gravitate towards their favorite projects. And then I was talking to your helpers, as well. I guess these are projects that you research and come up with?
EJ Zain 16:48
I do. I do a lot of research. A lot. And I think that's why even with the help that I have, things kind of are just at an organic pace, because I spent a lot of time making sure that they're going to learn something. I want them to learn that it's going to be engaging, that it's something that they are able to do. And so I also am learning so much from them that. I have to incorporate: What have they learned from me? What can I learn from them? I have to think about all these things when finding a project. I knew they would love the scribblebots because they see, like, an immediate reward after. But we've made bots before. We made bristlebots.
Pius Wong 17:37
The little bug-like thing?
EJ Zain 17:39
Yeah, the DIY, like, the Hexbugs. Instead of buying them at the stores, then we can make our own, and they really enjoyed that. And so I think that it's a lot. And I also make sure that they're going to just really -- I guess the best way to put it -- Sorry if I'm so wordy.
EJ Zain 18:05
The best way to put it is: Are they really going to love this? I want them to love it. Yeah, I want them to love it. And if they don't love it, I walk away from that class going [groans] "They didn't love it." [laughs]
Pius Wong 18:05
No, it's OK. [laughs]
Pius Wong 18:20
I can tell you're very emotionally invested.
EJ Zain 18:23
Pius Wong 18:25
So then EJ, what's the future of what you're doing? Or what do you want? Besides opening -- or not opening, but going to more schools -- Is there like a grander vision, you think?
EJ Zain 18:37
I wish I could tell you I had all of this mapped out, and I'm going to take over. No. So I will tell you, Pius, that -- I'm telling you a lot here -- I had a bit of tech envy.
Pius Wong 18:54
Tech envy? What is that?
EJ Zain 18:55
Us down here, down south, deep south, where I guess just you guys are up north where all the tech is. And there's a disconnect.
Pius Wong 19:08
South of Austin. I see.
EJ Zain 19:10
[laughs] Yeah. There is a disconnect, where I was hearing of these really nice programs in Leander School District, Round Rock.
Pius Wong 19:17
Okay, I understand.
EJ Zain 19:18
Yeah. And I was like, how come we can't have that? So that was part of it, too. I'm like, Hey, you know what? I'm going to make something cool. And I'm going to make it here for us southies. That's what I'm going to do. [laughs]
Pius Wong 19:37
South Austin pride.
EJ Zain 19:38
Yes, yes. Because, you know, I just was feeling like we need some of that engineering love, too. TechShop is up there. Yes, I can never get to TechShop. It's like, I'd have a membership, if I could get there.
Pius Wong 19:49
It's hard for me to get there, and I live in North Austin. It's a cool place. But you're right. Like why couldn't you have something like that here, or let alone any other neighborhood and another city?
EJ Zain 20:01
So I'd love to have like a mini TechShop for kids, like a Maker Kids Lab retail, but I just know the costs associated with that. So much overhead. And I imagine even TechShop, you know, has their overhead -- it's probably pretty high. And so I think about these things as like a grander vision for down south. And I just keep thinking, where I really want to be is in the schools. So as far as I can be in the schools, I will just keep doing that. We also do Scouts. That was really fun. We did a virtual reality lesson with some Girl Scouts recently. It was a lot of fun. And that was not on campus. That was actually at my home office, where we have a virtual reality station.
Pius Wong 20:46
EJ Zain 20:47
So that was -- Yeah, if my kids in my class here knew that. They could be like [gasp], Miss EJ!
I missed this week of learning how to make the bot, so I was learning along with the kids. So it's fun. It's fun for not just the kids. We get together. We prototype once a week at the house. But you learn with the kids. You're excited with them. You're too busy to be on your phone. These kids keep you on your toes.
EJ Zain 21:28
You have to be hands-on for sure.
But it's fun. I don't want to be on my phone. I want to be with the kids because their faces and their -- when they get it, their face -- You're just like, I helped with that. And that makes -- that gives you fulfillment.
EJ Zain 21:36
They look up to you. They start looking forward to seeing Miss Nicole, Miss Ri-- If I have one teacher that's not there they'll go, Where's Miss Riley? Where's Miss Nic-- And I'm like, What am I, chopped liver? [laughs]
She was out a couple of weeks ago. They were like, well why isn't miss EJ here? And I'm like, she's working on a really big project. She said she's sorry.
EJ Zain 22:00
I explained to them why I missed that class, because I was working. I had gotten onto the -- I told you, the SBA [Small Business Association] contest, which I didn't win. But I gave it my all. You know what's cool about it is it made me really just dig my heels in, look at my business model, micro-focus, and that was good for me to do that. And I hadn't pitched in so long. And let me tell you what. Working with the kids, that really helped my presentation.
Pius Wong 22:36
EJ Zain 22:36
They are the hardest critics ever. They're brutally honest.
EJ Zain 22:41
They're scarier than being in front of an auditorium of adults, because they will -- I had one. She raised her hand, Miss EJ -- I said, Yes, Sarah. Why is your hair so messy today? I said, Oh, is it? She goes, it's sticking up everywhere like a clown. I was like, Oh, is it? I'm so sorry. [laughs] That's why I wear a hat now. But they are brutally honest.
They are brutally honest, and they're not afraid to ask questions. And if it hurts your feelings, then get over it quickly.
Pius Wong 23:11
How was your first day, then? Like, I'm just trying to think --
Nicole (clip) 23:13
Well, they looked at me, and they were just like, Who are you? And why is Miss Riley not here? I'm just like, we're gonna build some dinosaur terrariums, cool?
EJ Zain 23:22
Pius Wong 23:24
This is making sense now, because you've got to prove yourself to these kids.
Nicole (clip) 23:27
Yeah, you do. And they're just like, looking at me like, pssh, I don't know you.
EJ Zain 23:32
EJ Zain 23:33
And they will go home and tell their parents: We got a new teacher. Her name Miss Nicole. They will nitpick if they, if you -- Yeah.
I had a parent go, Oh you're Miss Nicole. I'm like, oh, is that a good "You're Miss Nicole"? Or, "You're Miss Nicole."
EJ Zain 23:49
Technology is just going so crazy fast. I was listening to this podcast the other day, and there is an ad for self driving car software architects or something like that. And the guy was just -- Can you believe there's an ad for for this kind of job? Like who would -- Who would have thought that years ago? And I was thinking to myself like, yeah, that's pretty crazy. And these kids are going to go out into the world and go, Hey, you know what? I kind of felt like that was coming. Like maybe I kind of got exposed to that in elementary school. Like, that's all I'm trying to do. I'm just trying to plant a few seeds.
One of the kids that got that seed planted --
EJ Zain 24:38
Gets the job.
Nicole (clip) 24:39
Is the engineer that figures it out. It's like, I did that. I learned about circuits. I learned about this.
EJ Zain 24:47
They don't have to be engineers. They can be scientists, chemists, teachers. They can be, you know -- they can be a DIY-er and be happy with that, sell stuff on Etsy. I mean, you know? There's just so many different -- in this day and age, there's just so many different ways to be entrepreneurial, or to be scientific. You don't have to be an academic so much, quote-unquote, academic, anymore. You know, I think if you have the combo -- these kids have the combo of, you know, academics, and then thinking outside of that academic box sometimes and getting their hands dirty, I think that really balances the student.
Pius Wong 25:33
Well, EJ, can you tell me how people can find out more about Maker Kids Lab?
EJ Zain 25:37
Sure. Facebook is the best. My website is going -- Oh, my website. But Facebook Maker Kids Lab, and I'm brutally honest. Facebook Maker Kids Lab. Instagram is good. And why my website is undergoing is because I've had so many requests for tutorials. And that takes a lot of time. So I have to go and reinsert those. And yeah, Facebook, Instagram, and they can call me. If they if they have a question, and they want to start something like this at their school, and they're invested, I will more than happily walk them through what they have to do. And it's definitely a commitment. You gotta love it. You really gotta be passionate about it. You gotta love. You gotta love kids. You gotta love --
Pius Wong 26:32
It's exactly what you were saying earlier.
Nicole (clip) 26:34
He's like, so what do you do to get into this? So I'm like, well, one you have to love kids.
EJ Zain 26:39
We're fortunate to have people like Nicole, because she has worked with kids in youth group and church group all her life. So that's what I also look for, for teachers. And that's why I don't have many teachers. And so I tried to grow my teachers organically and really handpick in certain organizations that I trust. So that's my little HR secret.
Pius Wong 27:07
Thank you, EJ. And thank you Nicole for popping in at the end.
Pius Wong 27:14
That was EJ Zain, founder of Maker Kids Lab, LLC, in Austin, Texas, along with Nicole, one of her team members. For links to Maker Kids Lab or to other things mentioned today, check this episode's show notes. Thank you for listening. If you have a comment for me, you can message the show on Twitter: @K12engineering. And you can tweet me too: @PiusWong. Please rate and review the show on iTunes, follow the show on Facebook, and donate to the show on my Patreon. Maybe the show will continue. Find details at the show's website: k12engineering.net. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor under a Creative Commons Attribution License. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of my independent studio Pios Labs, and you can support Pios Labs at www.patreon.com/pioslabs.
Pius Wong 28:20
I'm really excited. Because it is that time again, the PanelPicker for the South by Southwest and South by Southwest Edu conferences, is open. And it's going to be open until mid-July, meaning we -- and you and me, like, anyone listening, as well as me and Rachel, and whoever -- we can also submit applications to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, next year, next spring. And just like last year, I'm sure it'll be a blast. I know that Rachel and I want to submit another session, and we want it to be about live podcasting this show. We want to have a session where we can not just have us, but maybe a special guest, discuss in real time issues relevant to K-12 engineering. So should we talk about diversity in engineering teachers? Should we talk about underpayment of teachers in general, let alone underpayment of technology and engineering teachers? Should we talk about the teaching of calculus in engineering or the teaching of statistics to replace calculus in engineering? Should we talk about politics? Should we talk about the difference between Texas and New York and California? I mean, there's so many things we could talk about. We need ideas. So just giving you the heads up: We are going to apply for another session for next year's South-by, and I hope that you are supportive and can vote for us. That would be super helpful. That is the news. Stay tuned for more later.