Whiz Kids: The Next Generation of High-Tech Makers

Step inside a STEAM center — this new crop of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math spaces are designed with young minds in mind.

Rachel Chang
Jan 28 · 6 min read

By Rachel Chang
Photographs by William Mebane

Grant Cox (left) and Kai Clunis (right) with instructor Sakhi Patel.

The familiar soundtrack of hide-and-seek fills the air. “She’ll never find me — I’m hiding so well!” shouts Kai Clunis, prompting giggles and yelps. But this game has a twist. The 11-year-old isn’t dodging classmates on a school playground. She’s hiding in cyberspace, in a hole that she dug via programming on ­Minecraft.

It’s a Friday afternoon at Zaniac, a STEAM-based (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) learning center for kindergartners through eighth graders in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Clunis is gearing up for an afternoon of educational enrichment classes disguised as playtime. Kids’ creativity is taking center stage in next-gen makerspaces like Zaniac, focused on high-tech, hands-on gadgetry including robotics, computer programming, and 3-D printing. Over the past several years, newly opened and planned STEAM facilities have received multimillion-dollar funding in cities from New York and Baltimore to Tallahassee, Florida, and Allen, Texas, all with the aim of boosting innovative thinking in young minds — and enriching the future workforce.

Former Amazon marketing professional ­Sonali Pai opened this Zaniac branch in June 2017 in an effort to expose children to the tech fields at an early age and to help close the gender gap in the industry. Almost two and a half years in, demand has skyrocketed — and the girl-boy ratio has balanced out. “We’ve been really fortunate, because parents see the value” in the space, Pai says. “It increases curiosity. It’s not just ‘Let’s play this app.’ It’s ‘Let’s go build an app.’ It’s inspiring kids to think creatively and always question why.”

In one of the brightly colored activity rooms, 8-year-old Alexa Jadach pulls up a computer program called Dance Party and demonstrates how she controls the colors and movements of its cat character. The catch: She coded the program all by herself. Yes, at age 8. “It only took a day,” she says. She flips to the back end to show a screen full of coding bubbles in a program called Scratch, complicated enough to make an adult’s head spin. But even with a green cast on her left wrist — the result of a ­monkey bar incident — the second-grader maneuvers through the program effortlessly. She’s programmed about 15 video games and hopes to design them professionally when she grows up.

Computer-based learning is just a warm-up for the day’s activities, all taught by high school and college students. Academic learning ­underpins the entire afternoon, but every session is framed in child’s play.

Challenge: Build a Drone

On one side of a worktable is a set of iPads; on the other, a pile of ­motley Lego-like pieces. Lead ­instructor Sakhi Patel, a biological ­sciences major at Rutgers University, explains that the kids have 30 minutes to build a drone. Within seconds, Clunis, Jadach, and 10-year-old Grant Cox are constructing an apparatus called the Juggernaut from the Flybrix drone kit.

Patel questions the team about potential uses for the machine. When “battles” and ­“spying” come up first, she steers them toward positive functions. Cox imagines using it to get drinks from the couch but soon gets more contemplative: “I wish drones did replace people so they could relax and [not have to work]. Then there would be no unfair pay, no one tries to steal, and there’s less crime in the world.” Implementing that plan might be more complicated than he realizes, but one thing’s clear: The wheels are turning as far as how these skills can better society.

Challenge: Float the Boat

Next, the kids must use recycled plastics (cups, water bottles) to build a boat that will float in a tub and hold as many marbles as possible.

Even though she’s among the youngest of the crew, Jadach’s competitive streak emerges. She’s determined to beat the Zaniac record of 98 marbles. But the tinkerers are dealt a blow — and a lesson in diminishing resources — early in the challenge, when their original four-cup allowance is slashed to two. As they strategize over their limited supplies, Clunis ponders real-world uses for her task. “By using plastic that people throw away, you can save the ocean,” she says. “I’ve done a whole project on it. We have about 12 years to save the world before it becomes irreversible. I’ll only be 23.” And what does she think about the fate of the planet being handed to her generation? “Thanks a lot, adults,” she says with an eye roll. She gets back to fine-tuning her contraption, adding a straw to keep it afloat. For the record: Her watercraft set a new achievement bar at Zaniac, with a capacity of 120 marbles.

Challenge: Battle the Bots

After refueling with Goldfish crackers and pretzels, the kids move on to their next activity: building robots that will face off in a duel.

Clunis and Cox team up, and Adam Biviji, 7 (who’s arrived, along with his brother Ali, 9, just in time from math class), joins Jadach. Both teams affix attachments to the shell of the robots and use software to control their movements. The goal is to knock all the attachments off the other team’s robot. The entire center gathers to watch the action unfold amid enthusiastic shrieks. “Attack!” “Disarm!” “Noooo!” It’s classic kid stuff. Well, aside from the fact that their playthings are elementary versions of robotics that could be used to build automobiles. In the end, age sees no advantage as the second-graders’ bot bests the fifth-graders’. The focused fun soon disseminates as parents start showing up. Pai and campus director Betty Gonzalez look on, another successful day in the books. “This is the place to explore, as creatively as possible,” says Gonzalez, a former special ed teacher. “There are no limits.”

As Jadach’s mom, Stephanie Skowronski, waits for her daughter to finish, she offers up a memory that bolsters Gonzalez’s point. “Alexa got in trouble with me recently,” she recalls. “Since I’m a big New York Rangers fan, she quickly programmed a Rangers video game for me as an apology.” After all, kids — even the whizzes — will be kids.

Maker intel: Kid-centric makerspaces are gaining steam around the world. Ones to watch: Seoul’s Dream Factory, which is focused on sustainable innovation, and STEM Cafe in Lekki, Nigeria, where one student built a model home with a remote-controlled lighting and ventilation system.

About the author: While chasing celebrities as an editor at Us Weekly, CosmoGIRL!, and J-14 magazines, Rachel Chang discovered a love of international travel. Having set foot on six continents and in 44 countries, the self-proclaimed overpacker is an advocate for solo travel and has written for Travel + Leisure, Mic’s Out of Office, Mental Floss, and Intrepid Travel.

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Rachel Chang

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Fueled by wanderlust, fulfilled by adventure. Travel, entertainment and lifestyle writer and editor. Alum of Us Weekly, J-14, CosmoGIRL!, The WB.

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