I’ll be completely honest with you. I’m writing this article to convince you to be a volunteer at STEM activities in your community.

Other than Halloween & other holidays, two of my favorite days every year are when I’m a judge at STEM competitions in Kansas City. I am always impressed and energized by the creativity and passion for science and technology in these kids. And seeing them present their project work and adherence to the scientific method, as well as describe their interest in the topic, just floors me. I didn’t have that level of poise or presentation skills when I was that age!

My father was an award-winning science teacher and STEM pioneer in the Kansas City area, so I suppose that originally sparked my interest in science. Technology has always interested me, and I’ve been fortunate to live and work in the tech hotbeds of San Francisco, Austin, and Portland, Oregon. So, when my son started 4th grade, I jumped at the opportunity to be a coach for his robotics team, which I did for three years. 

Greater Kansas City Science & Engineering Fair

Around the same time, I was asked to be a judge at the Greater Kansas City Science & Engineering Fair. My dad had been the director of the GKCSEF for decades, and I felt there’d be no better way to honor his involvement in it. As soon as I walked into the great hall at Union Station and saw ~800 tri-fold boards, research papers, and experiment artifacts, I was hooked.


I get to judge my favorite category at the GKCSEF – grade school and middle school inventions. Kids in this category are taught to brainstorm problems and choose the biggest one. Then brainstorm multiple ideas that might solve the problem before deciding on the solution/invention (yay, design thinking in education!) They build one or more prototypes, and are required to journal all their activity throughout the project, including:

  • Brainstorming documentation
  • Invention sketches and prototype diagrams
  • Market research (is there anything like it in the market?)
  • Customer research (would people buy it?)
  • Customer feedback, testing, and any prototype modifications
  • Breakdown of parts and manufacturing costs

These kids make marketing materials for their inventions, like logos, postcards, and flyers. Some even make video commercials that are accessible from a QR code on their tri-fold board. I LOVE THIS! What great real-life STEM and entrepreneurial experience these kids are getting, even before high school.

My favorite middle school invention this year was from two 7th grade students: a hands-free umbrella holder that attached via Velcro to a kid’s school backpack. Beyond just being a solid idea, I was impressed by their presentation, and the 3 different prototypes demonstrating the design adjustments they made after multiple rounds of testing. They’d also made the effort to find another potential target market beyond students: a family friend expressed great interest in the product, as she is deaf and would love to use both hands for her ASL communication, while staying dry under an umbrella. Brilliant.

KC STEM Alliance and Project Lead the WayI also have a blast judging the Innovator Awards for engineering and biomedical science projects at the Senior Showcase of Project Lead the Way, which is organized by KC STEM Alliance. The Senior Showcase is for about 500 high school seniors around Kansas City, highlighting their individual or team capstone projects from their PLTW course over the past year. Throughout the year, they are introduced to relevant business professionals—scientists, engineers, teachers, grad students and college professors—who act as mentors for their projects.

The Kanas City showcase is unique in that KC Startup Foundation provides entrepreneurial mentors, events and resources for the kids. The group also sponsors the “Innovator Awards” during the Senior Showcase. Select projects are nominated by teachers to be judged on innovativeness and marketability.

As a judge, I interview the students and rate the innovations on these criteria, give constructive feedback, suggest next steps in developing the idea, and allocate investment “dollars” to the projects I think have the best chance of coming to life. The top winners—with the most investment dollars—are then invited to the “Make it REAL Workshop” where they meet one-on-one with additional mentors like entrepreneurs, trademark and patent attorneys, marketers, and product designers, to determine next steps or further refine ideas. I’m blown away by the amazing resources and support these kids get.

My two favorite projects this year were:

  • "Spectacular Specs"- glasses design utilizing magnets, rather than hinges for the arm movement
  • "KinderProof"- senior-capable and yet child-proof bottle locks

Both are highlighted in this video from the kids' school district. Imagine my delight when I found out that the four inventors are from my child's school district!


Now You Get Involved!
I’d guess you can tell how much I love being involved in these STEM activities. Beyond paying tribute to my father’s leadership in Kansas City STEM, I feel like I’m making a personal investment in the future – the future of these specific kids, the future of education in the US, and the future of human advancement on this planet. Beyond all that deep, serious stuff, it’s just fun too.

To find out how you can get involved, just do a search on “STEM volunteer” – I guarantee you’ll find fantastic, worthwhile, and fun opportunities in your community.