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YMCA Brings STEM Programs to Bellingham Schools

Jun 29, 2018 06:00AM ● By Marjorie Turner Hollman

STEM instructor Doug Tepe (left) with Memorial School students Bernadette Pierce (4th grade) and Drew Pierce (5th grade), and YMCA's Association Director of Children's services Kim Jennings (right).

Story and photo by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Contributing Writer

It seems that everyone is talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) these days. 

But when you sit down with Kim Jennings, Association Director of Children’s Services at the Hockomock YMCA, you get the feeling that there are a lot of people devoted to helping our students get up to speed and more prepared to take on life’s technical challenges.

Partnership is important in making an emphasis on STEM work in Bellingham. The Bellingham School Department ran a pilot program in partnership with the Hockomock YMCA last year, and this year the Y has implemented a program that offers opportunities for students from grades K-8 to be challenged and engaged in STEM-focused classes. 

The after-school program run by the YMCA offers STEM-related classes in 10-week sessions for students, whether they are part of the after-school program or not.

Ashley Kepaa, Senior Director of School Age Programs for the Y, explained, “We like to keep the staff consistent in the schools they work with, providing familiar faces. We’ve been fortunate in having a strong relationship with the Bellingham schools. Superintendent Peter Marano has been great to work with. He sees us as a valued partner.”

The Bellingham Bulletin had the chance to see classes at both the Bellingham Memorial School after-school program (grades 4-8) and DiPietro (South) Elementary School. After-school programs in computer coding and more have been offered in conjunction with oversight by the Y, offering access to teachers with impressive educational backgrounds, through the company Tinker and Create (

The staff from Tinker and Create have graduated from such institutions as Harvard, Yale, Rhode Island School of Design and New England School of Law.

We dropped in on a class on computer coding at Bellingham Memorial School and found a room full of 4th-graders intent on figuring out how to get their characters to move from one side of a lava field to the other.

Using computer gaming as a model, the kids were engaged and sometimes extremely challenged. “It’s fun,” instructor Doug Tepe noted. “I see great ideas that the kids come up with that I hadn’t thought of.”

He explained that the class was using Unreal software, a free-service, open-platform software. Tepe noted, “The designers want people to use the platform to learn on. The kids can upload the software onto a thumb drive and take it home to continue working on their projects, these great ideas.”

But all is not well in some of their virtual worlds. Bernadette, one of the students in the coding class, suddenly exclaimed, “Everything is lava!” But not to worry—Tepe was soon leaning over her shoulder, helping Bernadette figure out how she needed to fix her code to help her character escape utter destruction.

Tepe admitted, “I see these classes as controlled chaos. Sometimes I think the kids aren’t paying attention, but then they come back to me and I realize they were. It took some getting used to since I did not come to this from a teaching background. “He continued, Etay [Armon, the Director of Tinker and Create] and I try to discourage stereotypes of who is good at STEM, so we start by telling the kids about video games designed by women and video pioneers who are women.”

Armon pointed out that “hands-on experience is the common denominator for all the Tinker and Create courses offered at the after-school programs at Bellingham Memorial School.”

Jennings explained that the STEM classes are scheduled to allow for kids who do not participate in the Y’s traditional after-school childcare program to participate easily regardless of transportation concerns. “Students can take the late bus after participation in our STEM (and other classes) offered after school,” Jennings explained. “So transportation is not an issue.”

Jennings went on to explain the partnership the Y has with Tinker and Create. “We contracted with Tinker and Create to provide us with people who have expertise in STEM that we otherwise do not have. Our goal is to have Doug and his team back in the fall for another 10-week session of courses.

They are taking these STEM classes to the next level. They also teach classes at the Hockomock Y. We’ve had them teach game design, coding to create visual novels, solar-car racing, robotics, 3-D printing and more.”

“Hands on” was the theme of the STEM program offered at DiPietro Elementary School recently. Y staff members who also work with the kids in their after-school program came during the day and offered to the third-graders a STEM-focused class on binary coding.

Jillian Fain, the Y’s Director of Curriculum and STEM, explained, “I try to use the recycling center in Providence to obtain materials for these classes”—(Resources [recycling] for Rhode Island Education, She continued, “We get funding for these STEM classes from the schools. Superintendent Peter Marano has been greatly supportive.”

After a simple first coding activity, matching colors to number patterns to create an image, each third-grader who came to the class was handed a sheet of paper with lines of numbers, each string of numbers standing for a letter of the alphabet. The children were given beads of three different colors—they strung the beads in patterns, according to the codes for their initials to create bracelets.


 DiPietro STEM 2-- 3rd graders Eden Brown, Aaron Meagher, Anthony Gosselin, William Landrigan, Bryson Nicholson show off their coded name bracelets. 

Third-grade teacher Lauren Samek said, “This project helps the kids with number pattern recognition, puzzling, and problem-solving. They have the challenge of not knowing where they’re going and having to think for themselves.”

Fain noted, “We created programs to help schools comply with education standards they need to meet.” 

Jennings pointed out, “Last year was a pilot program for the Y. We offered classes in the schools, then went to the school committee for funding for this year, and Jill came on board in October and we started offering classes in January. We will offer classes and programs again next year and, in addition, next year in Bellingham we will help support the schools’ “Maker Spaces”—places with materials for students to tinker with, assembling and disassembling things. We’ll also be running programs during and after school in 2018-2019.”

Jennings also noted, “When we have kids with different learning styles, we modify the activities. We do the same thing, but with different expectations. Kids take these activities home and keep working on them, which expands the engagement. It’s so cool. We love our jobs!” 

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