By KAREN THIEL
For the Washington Daily News
“What do you do when life gives you lemons? You make lemonade.”
The creator of IBX STEM Center at Washington-Warren Airfield has been doing the technological version of that slogan all summer, while adjusting to the challenge of “teaching tech” to the center’s program participants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just couldn’t sit and do nothing,” said Alvin “Al” Powell, who has directed the center’s STEM program since 2012. The summertime curriculum has traditionally been a challenging combination of all the components of the center’s “STEM” acronym: science, technology, engineering and math.
Powell said that, this year, the COVID-related challenges for his student participants weighed heavily on his heart.
“There are dangers among these kids, from isolation, lack of socialization and burnout from virtual media overuse … to living with the effects of their parents’ issues, including joblessness, depression, frustration and anxiety. My moral and ethical obligation here is to those kids and their families,” Powell said.
This year’s offerings were to have included a drone camp, a separate aviation camp, a boating camp and a CAD camp for enthusiasts of computer-aided design. Those all disappeared once most of the country — especially its education opportunities — shut down to preserve the health of citizens.
In place of those canceled learning opportunities, Powell created an online drone camp for Beaufort County students, which has run since June 29. He said it is the first program in the country that features a STEM-focused curriculum.
News of the virtual camp, and positive opinions about its merits, spread so quickly and so far that educators in Greenville’s school system convinced Powell to run an abbreviated version of the drone camp there. The Pitt County program, which ended this week, was organized and run with cooperation from the Greenville Police Activities League.
Each program’s final day took place Friday, featuring a COVID-compliant field day at the STEM Center, which is located at Washington-Warren Airfield, off of Market Street Extension. Among the several activities on the list for that day, students will be able to experience the effects of a full-motion flight simulator located at the STEM building.
The event will also give Powell a chance to thank Beaufort County leaders and companies who have contributed to the success of the program with donations that included 25 laptops from the Beaufort County schools, fully customized with technical programming so students could learn flight-related coding. Also included are several grants and numerous financial donations from Washington-based businesses that have supplied the budget needed for the center’s technical equipment.
“STEM isn’t cheap when you do it the right way,” Powell said.
Hundreds of thermometers, masks, disinfectants and gloves will also be given away to program participants at the closing event. Powell said some of those supplies will be distributed to local residents who benefit from the services of the school system, the United Way and Washington Pediatrics medical practice.
Powell said he is grateful to board members, donors and other contributors to the IBX STEM program for allowing him to run a curriculum with a whole-person approach.
“If you’re not healthy, you can’t learn,” Powell said. “If you don’t have life skills, you probably won’t pass a background check when you need it. If you don’t have a good education — which this center helps provide — you won’t have anywhere near the potential needed to advance and succeed.”