The data doesn’t lie: S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields are more important than ever. One Bradenton area woman is on a mission to make S.T.E.M. more fun. Her name is Neirda Thompson-Pemberton, and she’s the founder of FUNducation. TechHouse spoke with Thompson-Pemberton, who has a background in civil engineering, to learn more about her innovative approach to children’s S.T.E.M. education.
What is FUNducation?
Funducation is a combination of mentorship, experience, vision, and goals as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) that was born in May 2019.
I was doing all these things by myself and out of my own pocket, which I was told by mentors, friends, and family was not sustainable. Because what I was doing was impactful and more of a mission, it was suggested to me to do a nonprofit, and I’ve been on that road ever since.
Our mission is to partner with community and organizations to expose and engage our kids in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, in the hopes they would pursue those professions.
If they don’t pursue those professions, what skillets do students gain from your program?
That’s one of the things that I had to come to terms with: not every person we impact will go into the profession. But I think we owe it to our kids to let them know the options that are available, and in the very least, S.T.E.A.M. education. It’s critical thinking. It’s problem solving, so just by exposing them to S.T.E.A.M. education, they will have an understanding on how to approach a problem. They will have an understanding of the technologies and systems that’s developing the world around them, which will still give them a voice, so they are able to make an impact in their community, but in the least case, participate. It seems like an injustice or unfair for a kid or student to be graduating today and not know these things, right? Not know what their options are. Because if we impact them and they still choose not to go into that field or one of those fields, that’s okay, but at least they’re observing the world in a more informed and educated way. We’re helping them to gain the skills to be empowered.
What inspired you to start FUNducation?
When I graduated from school, and I had my first job working as a civil engineer and engineering intern, the first thing [that I had to do was] go out into the schools and talk to the kids about becoming an engineer… I go into this classroom full of kids, and I was like, “How many of you guys know what an engineer does?”
These kids didn’t even know what engineering was. And then after I told them what engineering was and what it took to get there—the math and the sciences—I lost the room… Because math and sciences are the taboo subjects, right? The subjects kids don’t want to work with. So, for me, that’s when it kind of sparked… I started volunteering with various organizations at events that were focused on reaching kids with math and the sciences.
How do you collaborate with the various communities and schools? How do you ensure consistency when it comes to all the children or the students that you mentor?
It’s about relationships and partnerships. I think one of the things that we do different and one of the reasons why I founded FUNducation was [the] long term consistent and successive [programming]. I think with a lot of people, they do wonderful events… where they have these great one-day opportunities. Maybe even a two-week course or something, but what happens if you actually spark an interest in that child, who then picks up that ball and continues to feed that, foster that? With FUNducation, it’s partnering with organizations that [support] long term opportunity. That’s the FUNducation difference.
So how did you manage COVID?
I feel like there’s nothing that we can’t do live that we can’t do virtually [sic], but that’s where the village kicks in. Because it does take that organization or their parent holding the student accountable, in addition to FUNducation. Relationships and partnerships are so important.
How do you decide what to include in your S.T.E.A.M. curriculum?
I keep it as real-world as possible, and that’s where looping in volunteers from the different disciplines [is important]. For example, because my background is in civil, I can go to a local civil engineering company and get a set of plans and put it in front of them [the students]. When we did cybersecurity, I was able to find a student that just graduated and loop them in—keeping it as real-world as possible so that they know the opportunities and then what they need to do to be considered for those opportunities.
What programs are you looking for FUNducation to offer in the near future?
Right now, I’m making a big push for digital literacy and computer science. I had the great opportunity to work with the Steve Wozniak Foundation to pilot their S.T.E.A.M. program at a local Title I school. I’d like to take that and also bring that out into the community. And artificial intelligence—I’m [also] looking into how we can develop curriculum around artificial intelligence and bring that out too.
What does it mean to be a woman in S.T.E.M. or S.T.E.A.M.?
Man, what does it mean? For me, it means being an example for other girls and women, especially women of color.
For me, just for my family, [I am] one of the only ones that went to college. So that was a huge accomplishment.
And then, I appreciate the perspective that being an engineer has given me. I tell kids this all the time: being an engineer, I see the world differently. I think in more detail because I have the skillset to help influence that. And it’s so funny ’cause I was talking to a retired mechanical engineer yesterday, and he said the same thing, he looks at the world differently. He can hear hydraulics, he said, like if an elevator is going [up or down]. When it rains, I look down to see where the water is going to which drainage basin or whatever.
So, depending on what you did, it really shapes your perspective on how you see the world.
How does FUNducation respond to society’s current and future needs?
By building those pathways and these programs at the youngest [ages possible], we start to shape the way the kids think. [We] let them know that these opportunities are available to them, so by the time they get to the age or the grade that they have to make a decision [about their future], it’s at least an option.
Why did you include “Art” in FUNducation’s mission? Why S.T.E.A.M. and not S.T.E.M.?
I’m so glad that you asked that. The classical term is S.T.E.M., which is science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Recently they added arts to it… We’re talking about the art of communication. I’m telling my kids, “You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t communicate that idea clearly and concisely, it really will have no value.” So now we’re teaching them soft skills [because] you have to have them. Have you ever had a conversation with an engineer? With some engineers, you can’t talk to them because they’re talking at a level that’s so high that they can’t break it down for you. If you have an idea and you want to garner support, you want to garner funding, you have to be able to communicate it clearly and concisely.
And also, there’s the art of robotics right now, the art of engineering. There are so many ways art impacts those other fields. The best [example] from one of my mentors is nobody wants an ugly toaster. You want that toaster to work, but you also want it to fit with the other appliances in your theme of your kitchen. So, it has to be form and function, and I feel arts does cover that.
What makes FUNducation different from other programs that offer S.T.E.A.M.?
Well, first, the fact that I have a background in engineering, the fact that I am a female and the fact that I am a black female because that brings three different perspectives to the table that I think a lot of other programs and organizations are not able to provide for their kids. The fact that we focus on long-term, consistent and successive as opposed to the one and done or an event. And just my passion… I just really want to make that difference. This is my part, you know. I know there are different ways. Some people protest, some people fund, and for me, it’s boots-on-the-ground and our organization providing advocacy in these programs.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
The only thing that I would add is support comes in so many different ways. A lot of people assume it’s just funding. Funding is good. Don’t get me wrong, we appreciate the funding, but it’s also [other forms of] support.
If you have the business expertise or acumen and you’d like to help steer this ship, that would be great. If you can, put in your time to be on our board to help with our strategy. [There’s] advocacy if you don’t have the time to be on the board. If you don’t have the funds, but you have the pulpit, you have the opportunity to tell people about us. Support comes in so many ways, and we appreciate all of it.
Keep in touch with Thompson-Pemberton’s ongoing and upcoming initiatives at www.funducation.org.