Iowa State STEM outreach programs join forces to expand reach across state

Pete Evans talks to students

Pete Evans speaks with kids during a visit to a summer camp at the Waukee Innovation and Learning Center. The FLEx program expanded to include space-oriented activities thanks to a NASA grant, in addition to a recent partnership with students in Iowa State's WiSE program. Photos by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — Seven years and 80,000 people later, Iowa State University’s FLEx program is expanding its reach even more.

Pete Evans, assistant professor of industrial design, coordinates FLEx (Forward Learning Experience), a design and STEM outreach program that launched in 2014 as a result of a graduate design studio that was tasked with creating a mobile classroom for technology outreach to Iowa’s K-12 students.

The program, which travels across the state in an ISU commercial cargo van, began with virtual and augmented reality, Oculus Rift immersive visualization, 3D printing and circuit building with Little Bits.

Thanks to a grant from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium and a new partnership with ISU Program for Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), the FLEx program is re-focusing its offerings and bringing up-and-coming students along for the road trip.

FLEx2GO Space Artemis provides activities that explore core space concepts, celebrate the NASA Artemis program and provide insight into upcoming plans for the Moon, Mars and even Earth.

FLEx’s expanding program includes a motion base and virtual reality headset that gives users a real sense of flying, driving and even riding a roller coaster through Iowa State’s central campus, as well as a tabletop map on which small robots can be programmed to run missions and be modified by the user with compatible LEGOs for unique designs.

“This program shows youth what’s happening in space now that’s driving rapid innovation,” Evans said. “We’re using the space theme to push FLEx’s underpinnings of STEM skills and design thinking.” 

Yamille Perez talks to students

Yamille Perez of WiSE shows kids 3D printings
during a visit to a summer camp at the Waukee
Innovation and Learning Center. Larger image.

Partnering with WiSE

In addition to its expansion, FLEx is now partnering with WiSE’s Student Role Model (SRM) program, in which undergraduate STEM students deliver STEM programming to K-12 youth.

“Partnering with FLEx and Extension gives us broader reach,” said Yamille Perez, outreach and recruitment program specialist for WiSE and Iowa 4-H Youth Development. “Before, Student Role Model events were hosted in central Iowa. Now, we can expand to the entire state.”

Since FLEx launched seven years ago, Evans says it has reached 80,000 people across Iowa. The SRM program currently has 27 student role models, and is recruiting more to return it to pre-pandemic levels.

“Something we continue to have to ask ourselves is, all of this stuff is cool, but what is it teaching kids?” he said.

It all goes back to the FLEx framework, which brings technology to K-12 students – particularly those who may not otherwise have access to this kind of technology – and shows them the possibilities for technological development, teaches them about technological innovations through history, and inspires them to consider all possibilities for what they could be when they grow up.

Perez calls it the “spark.”

“You can see it in their eyes: ‘This is cool,’” she said. “Their interest is sparked during this little moment in time, then hopefully that continues. We want to show not just little girls but anyone that you don’t have to be an ‘engineer’ in the traditional sense. How do we break those misconceptions of what an engineer looks like? We want to put student role models in front of youth to show that you can be an engineer no matter what you do, what you look like, your background, or where you’re from.”

FLEx is a collaboration between the Colleges of Design and Engineering, as well as ISU Extension and Outreach.