On Saturday morning, your seventh grader was at the computer. Again. But today, she’d joined a free virtual workshop, learned about the heart and circulatory system, taken her pulse, and listened to your heartbeat with her home-made stethoscope. By midday, she’d built a working model of a mechanical heart.

In a virtual meeting a few days later, a parent and a gleeful high-schooler learned that playing video games can be a good thing. So beneficial in fact, that schools and community partners are launching an E-Sports initiative, where students will form clubs and compete in online video gaming tournaments.

What’s going on here?

These two events–sponsored by United Way’s Greater Bridgeport STEM Learning Ecosystem (GBSLE)—celebrated National STEM Day, which honors education in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

“Our goal with these events is to spark a passion for STEM learning through hands-on projects that engage students and their families,” noted Gwendolyn Brantley, lead of the STEM Ecosystem. “Building interest and skills at an early age can put kids on the path to a bright future.”


Creating a brighter future is exactly the long-term goal of United Way’s Bridgeport Prospers—the home of the GBSLE initiative. “We intend to improve outcomes for all children, from cradle to career,” commented Allison Logan, Executive Director of Bridgeport Prospers. “STEM education can help improve achievement in Math and Science—which are proven benchmarks for both academic and career success.”

STEM education can pave the way to a promising career, especially since STEM careers are growing at three times the rate of careers in other fields. In fact, US Department of Labor data show that, of the top ten fasting-growing occupations, nearly all are in STEM career fields. And wages differ too, with the median annual STEM wage totaling over $84,000, vs. $37,000 for all non-STEM job wages.

Importantly, according to Ms. Brantley, “STEM education can help close the current wage gap that exists by race, ethnicity, and gender. To do so, we must ensure that quality STEM learning activities are available to all students, particularly to those whose families can’t often afford enrichment activities.”

Jeff Kimball, CEO of the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County, the funder of the GBSLE, added: “Certainly, STEM education is critical to an individual’s future earning-potential. But it also plays a role in workforce readiness and global competitiveness. The U.S. economy was built on innovation, yet our students now lag behind other developed nations in Science and Math. Our STEM initiative aims to prepare students to compete in the AI economy, starting with events like these. ”


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Keen student interest was on display at both events this week.

STEM Saturday

Over 100 students in kindergarten through seventh grade took part in the STEM Saturday event, The Heart and Circulatory System. Students registered in advance and received their own personal kit of materials to use. The event was conducted through Zoom. Students worked in small break-out groups by age, where trained tutors guided them through the activities. The event was offered to families for free, thanks to several additional sponsors: ACCESS Educational Services, Avangrid, Bridgeport Public Schools, and Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin Company.

By all accounts, the day was a success. Isaiah, a Bridgeport sixth-grader commented “Thank you for the program. I loved it so much.” Third-grader Akhilesh gave it his strong recommendation: 2 thumbs up. Austin, a sixth grader from Easton, was intrigued by the stethoscope he crafted from a paper towel tube and a funnel. “The stethoscope was cool.   It actually worked! I heard a heartbeat–unexpectedly.”

Parents were equally pleased with the workshop. “This was a wonderful introduction to the heart, using kid-friendly materials,” commented Anna from Bridgeport, mom of a sixth-grade participant. Stratford momSandra—whose sixth and seventh-graders enjoyed the workshop—agreed: “It was a great learning activity. I truly appreciate that my boys were able to participate.” And Lisa, whose fourth and fifth-grade grandchildren participated in the program, added, “My kids loved it. We look forward to your next event.”

Another STEM Saturday event is being planned for February. Both workshops are programs developed by STEM NOLA, a nonprofit devoted to developing future STEM creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

E-Sports Launch

In an online information session, the GBSLE announced the launch of an E-Sports initiative in the community. Currently, several youth-serving organizations are forming individual clubs of students to compete in online video games.

“E-Sports combines fun and play with academic achievement and social connectedness,” noted Logan of Bridgeport Prospers.

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That’s news for most parents. But research shows that video gaming does have positive benefits. It can improve attention, increase problem-solving skills, foster digital literacy, and improve higher math skills. Like participation in all sports, it fosters personal growth, increases school satisfaction, and is associated with higher grade point averages in high school. Further, E-sports can also connect students to colleges, with Central Connecticut State University entering the E-sports realm in academics and competitions last fall. Locally, Housatonic Community College (HCC)—a leader in STEM— is exploring adding an E-Sports component to its a Dual Enrollment program (where high school students can earn college credit).   “E-Sports is a new and exciting endeavor,” noted Robin Avant, HCC Dean of Academic Affairs and co-lead of the GBSLE.

What’s the good news for kids—besides parent approval to play video games? Like all clubs, it offers students the chance to build and belong to a community. And during the isolation that’s come with remote learning under the COVID-19 pandemic, this is no small benefit.

With adult guidance, students will recruit members, establish a mission, and name, and select which video games to play. As members of the North America Foundation for Scholastic E-Sports (NASEF), the clubs must also set a club Code of Conduct that prioritizes teamwork and inclusivity. In return, NASEF covers costs of curriculum, club activation, gaming licenses, and virtual support/coaching, thanks to charitable organizations headed by the Samueli Foundation.

Student membership is not limited to video gamers. Clubs will also need organizers for the events, strategists to provide coaching and analysis, content creators to develop a club mascot, logo and website, and “Shoutcasters” to provide the color commentary for the gaming competitions. This offers an opportunity to bring together students with varying skills and personalities.

Parents were amazed. “I never thought it was okay to play video games,” commented a parent of a ninth-grader, “but I can see where this club approach has real value.” An eleventh-grade student noted, “Sometimes, video gaming can be isolating. I would like having a local team to play on.” But twelfth-grader Eugene summed up the chief reaction of all students in attendance: “When can we start?”

Students in middle school and high-school can join a club by signing up directly with one of the six youth organizations participating: Access Educational Services, Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders, Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse, Dunbar Family Resource Center, Cardinal Shehan Center, and VIP Inc. College Prep Program.

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Overall, the week’s activities were a cause for celebration. I’m so proud of the impactful, innovative work being done by the Greater Bridgeport STEM Learning Ecosystem,” commented United Way’s Kimball. “Our investment in the GBSLE can help close the opportunity gap that prevents kids from reaching their full potential.”  

Since Fairfield County has one of the largest opportunity gaps in the country, there’s a lot of work to be done. But, Kimball added, “I’m hopeful and confident that we can empower our kids toward brighter horizons.”




Bridgeport Prospers

Bridgeport Prospers’ mission is to work collectively as a community of stakeholders to have a positive, measurable, and sustainable impact on outcomes for all children and families, from cradle to career. We focus on a set of seven common outcomes, from healthy and ready at three and kindergarten readiness, to high school graduation and career readiness.   The initiative receives backbone support from the United Way of Coastal Fairfield County. Find out more at http://www.unitedwaycfc.org/bridgeportprospers.


United Way of Coastal Fairfield County

United Way of Coastal Fairfield County’s mission is: “Together, we mobilize our communities to improve people’s lives.” Our vision is that all children in Coastal Fairfield County are successful in school and prepared for success in life. UWCFC serves the towns of Bridgeport, Darien, Easton, Fairfield, Monroe, New Canaan, Norwalk, Stratford, Trumbull, Weston, Westport, and Wilton. Find out more at http://www.unitedwaycfc.org.


North America Scholastic Esports Federation

NASEF is on a mission to provide opportunities for ALL students to use esports as a platform to acquire critical communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills needed to thrive in work and in life.  The Federation’s core values are intertwined through all aspects of education and play: learning, opportunity, community, diversity, and respect. Learn more at www.nasef.org. See matches streamed live on our Twitch channel, and join online conversations on Twitter @NASEFedu, or on Facebook and Instagram.



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