It was the kids in the hall — the ones loitering and either up-to-no-good or about to be — that Meredith Wenger wanted to get to know.
She had been volunteering at Seattle’s Yesler Community Center helping neighborhood kids with their homework, but then she noticed something.
“The kids who were into homework help were into school. They were already more prepared than the kids we saw hanging out in the hallway,” Wenger said. “We wanted to actually get the kids from the hallway doing something more productive with their brains.”
So in 2011, Wenger founded the nonprofit Big-Brained Superheroes Club, an informal outlet for kids that is focused on science and engineering.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than a dozen kids cycled in and out of the Big-Brained room at the community center in a swirl of controlled chaos.
Preschool-age kids clicked together rainbow-hued Magna Block building tiles. At the next table, teenage boys soldered pieces of defunct and disassembled electronics in an effort to not burn themselves and to make a circuit that would turn on a small panel of LED lights. Success eluded them on both fronts, but they remained undeterred.
“I just like learning different things,” said 11th-grade Yussuf Abdi. He was writing code on a laptop in order to animate a cardboard Godzilla with moving arms.
“It gives me options in the future,” he said, “for what I can become and what I can do.”
The clubs tries to focus on key STEM concepts. That includes circuitry and building circuits with non-traditional materials to understand how they work; exploring the 1s and 0s of binary counters; and using “digital logic” and the idea of breaking down complex structures into their simpler parts.
Wenger, who has a Master’s degree from the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering department, welcomes other “legit, do-gooding nerds” to volunteer with the group. Participants and board members include Wenger’s partner, Thom McDonald, who is an engineer at Facebook, other folks from the tech field, as well as local parents.
“We’re always looking for more people who are willing to use their super power and want to nerd it up,” Wenger said.
The club typically meets three weekday evenings and Saturdays. Between 15 to 30 kids participate daily and about seven volunteers rotate through the sessions. The center serves a geographically diverse group of kids, many of whose families came from East African countries, and lower-income residents.
When Wenger started the club, the target was 8-to-13-year-old kids, she but found that some older kids were missing out because they had to babysit younger siblings. Now it’s open to all ages, but littler kids either need to be able to take care of themselves, or have a family member to help.
The Seattle Parks Department lets Big Brained, a 501(c)(3), use space in the community center. The program is supported through periodic grants from city park and neighborhood programs; individual donations and contributions; and BECU and Google have provided funding. Wenger has looked for philanthropic support, but the club hasn’t fit the criteria.
Whether the kids realize it or not, Big-Brained projects often incorporate an element of social-emotional learning. Take robotics, for example. The kids write some input, the robot processes it and then they see the output when it moves.
“We want kids to think in terms of their own brains sometimes. When they get input and have an output, they sometimes ignore the process between the two things,” Wenger said. Like if a kid hits someone, she asks them to look at the process and understand why they acted like they did.
It’s asking, “how does your brain decide that is a good response?” she said. “Getting into that zone.”
Back in the class, McDonald was drawing circuits on a white board to explain how a current would move along it. Nearby, Justin Le-Huynh was climbing up and down a ladder helping assemble a landscape scene with a Space Needle, UFOs and stars that were wired to light up.
“I like coming because you can do whatever you’d like,” said the third-grader, “it just has to be productive.”
In the hall outside the room, first-grade Anisa Said and her friends used a smart phone to guide a small robot.
“I’m challenging you to find a way that when you draw line, it will follow the line,” Wenger instructed them. “Teamwork! Teamwork!”
The girls righted the tipped over robot and kept working.
“I see all of this potential,” Wenger said of the kids, whom she calls “big brains.” It’s the kids’ “creativity and critical thinking and team work. And for a long time I saw the kids in the hall and it was going to waste and was going to socially counterproductive endeavors and I thought, ‘This is messed up.’
“The big brains themselves are ridiculously delightful,” she said. “They are irreplaceable and undervalued in the world.”