South Main Street and the Central Carolina Technical College Health Sciences parking lot in downtown Sumter on Saturday were a scene from as if a science fair, a family fun festival, a career fair and a block party had a baby.
A few thousand …
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A few thousand elementary school-aged children, their families, teachers, neighbors, community members and - hopefully, according to event organizers - future employers went to the first-ever eSTEAM Sumter festival, a celebration of the science, technology, engineering, art and math curriculum developing throughout public and private schools in Sumter, Lee and Clarendon counties and a showcase of the businesses and industries in the region that are forming community partnerships to reach out to their next generation of employees.
Erika Williams, director of communication and strategic initiatives for Sumter Economic Development and TheLINK, a public-private economic development nonprofit spanning Sumter and Lee counties, said the interactive, hands-on educational event geared toward kids was brainstormed from the need to connect all aspects of the community with a goal to "develop the talent pipeline."
"We work with the school districts having events specifically for kids, but we're missing the other elements, so this was an opportunity to connect all three," said Williams, who helped spearhead and organize the at least 64 exhibitors and schools that set up booths. "Because, ultimately, the parents and the kids help to make the decisions long term for the careers, and we wanted them to see what there is to offer in this region."
A requirement to participate on Saturday was to be interactive for the kids, she said. Exhibitors from massive manufacturers such as Caterpillar, BD and Continental Tire to businesses such as National Weather Service, Clemson Extension, EMS Chemie and Merchant Iron Works Inc. and local organizations such as Sumter Fire Department, Sumter Opera House, Sumter County Gallery of Art and Palmetto Health Tuomey welcomed kids from pre-school to high school to play, create, draw, design, build and construct.
Williams said the event was modeled after similar ones in Greenville and Charleston and that there was "overwhelming support, especially for Year One."
Schools from Clarendon, Lee and Sumter participated, as did most of the area's biggest private schools.
"It takes a village and strong villagers, and our people are our greatest asset, and we know that we need other people to see," Williams said.
She said when Sumter Economic Development recruits manufacturers, industries and companies to come to Sumter, "they want a workforce that's standing at the ready."
Elma Strong is in charge of developing that pipeline of young students in Sumter and spent time Saturday going from school tent to school tent, seeing what projects they were showcasing.
"The kids are loving the hands-on learning. That's where all of the jobs are going to be. The job market is heading that way, and we need to get our kids to be college- and career-ready, so helping them in the elementary schools is a great start for them," said Strong, Sumter's elementary schools STEM support specialist. She goes from school to school working with STEM coaches and teachers on their curriculum that is working toward a handful of STEM certifications for schools.
Telling elementary school-aged kids they need to be an engineer when they grow up can be too abstract, so Strong and her team bring STEM and STEAM (adding the arts into the equation) to their level with problem-based learning and hands-on, real-world problems.
Businesses and industries come to the schools to demonstrate what they do, and students take field trips to see the jobs in action.
What made eSTEAM unique for the region was the community and parental involvement, Strong said.
"If the parents are positive about something, the kids are going to be positive in something. And, right now, we have kids going home and saying, 'You should see what we did in STEM today at school.' And parents are learning what STEM is, and parents come in and volunteer because for STEM, those extra helping hands are needed," she said.
One of those community partners is Thompson Family of Companies, Saturday's platinum sponsor and a Partner in Education with Crosswell Drive Elementary School.
Kids entered the Swirl World, a massive event tent in the CCTC parking lot that featured about 10 different stations, all featuring different aspects of what Thompson Construction and its other companies do and use on a day-to-day basis.
"We have to swirl as our log, so it's the world we live in. We've got the coolest technology, engineering and math and arts there is, working in construction. So, we thought about the things we use in and out every day," said Jason Browder, tool coordinator for Thompson. "Like, we've got a chain lift that lifts heavy machinery. We've got vacuums and water pressure, the scissor lift."
Kids got to drill holes into a piece of wood they then watched a robot move around before taking their craft home. They tried to shoot a water gun at a Thompson swirl. They raced balls in a plastic tube based on air pressure.
"We know that the future of our company and the future of the industry itself depends on education from the vocational standpoint," Browder said.
Thompson is also working in Crosswell to develop soft skills job candidates need, such as dependability, reliability, productivity and initiative.
"We're all like farmers today," Browder said. "If you're going to have a good crop in the future, you got to sow good seeds ... If we can get a kid today and he sees a robot or a drill for the first time, and he takes his little game home and says, 'I made this. I built this,' then maybe, just maybe, down the road when he gets into high school and he starts to think what he might do, that seed may begin to grow."
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