A strong community can promote new ideas and ensure accountability. It can also act as motivation, support, and even provide a little friendly competition. The power of community is undeniable and the Okanagan tech community is no exception.
Our community is strong and growing with record speed and maintaining connection through a period of growth like this can be a challenge. Nobody panic, we've got a plan.
Introducing, The Faces of #OKGNtech. A showcase of Okanagan tech entrepreneurs, partners, supporters, and cheerleaders designed to fuel more connection, more growth, and more excitement. Follow along (on the blog and on Instagram @OKGNtech) to learn more about our growing community and what makes them awesome.
Meet Gina. Dr. Gina Cherkowski is Founder of STEM Learning Lab and Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder of EdgeMakers. EdgeMakers is an innovative education company that empowers teachers and youth with the skills, tools and mindsets they need to solve the world’s most pressing problems. When Gina isn't designing and innovating with her team at EdgeMakers, you’ll find her working on her newest passion project, STEAM360 Canada Foundation, a non-profit that helps underserved children get access to high-quality STEM, STEAM and Maker learning experiences.
We recently caught up with Gina to learn more about the early days at STEM Learning Labs and what her new charity is all about.
What inspired you to launch STEM Learning Labs?
"As a math teacher, I realized I was perpetuating the divide between those who got to know math and those who did not. If students didn't have a certain mark we would say "you're not welcome in this class" and there would be another option for them to do math down the hall. That just didn't sit right with me. The research clearly shows that early math skills are the greatest predictor of future academic and future overall success. I just knew, we could not continue to leave kids out and I wanted to be a part of the solution.
I initially became a professor thinking that changing the curriculum would give teachers better tools and create more inclusion but It turns out starting my own company is what got me the most traction. It gave me the opportunity to really disrupt things."
[Editor's Note: Hungry for more? Watch Gina's Ted Talk.]
What did those early days at STEM Learning Labs look like?
"It started off with me throwing robots in the back of my car and doing free workshops and programs for schools and just educating people about what the acronym STEM even was. Then we grew from a team of one to a team of three, and we started doing after school programs and summer camps. From there, all of a sudden, our team was 30 people strong and our programs were in demand all around the globe! It became increasingly obvious that we’d tapped into a global problem.
STEM Learning Lab started out just for kids but it wasn’t long before I had demand from teachers. Teachers traditionally were not taught computer science skills and digital literacy, and because technology changes so fast there is something to learn all the time.
Can you tell us about the latest merger between STEM Learning Lab and Edgemakers?
"STEM Learning Labs recently merged with Edgemakers and we have now expanded into the US. We are in the process of adding innovation, creativity, critical thinking, entrepreneurship to our fleet of programing. These pieces will enhance our current STEM offering (we're calling it STEM 2.0). We are now offering stand-alone curriculum so people who want to innovate and build creative capacities can do so through our STEM programming or they can do that through our Edgemakers series programming. We are kind of were merging two worlds and it's fascinating!
My new partner, John Kayo is an experienced business professional who wrote the curriculum on innovative thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity for Harvard University. He is also an active advisor to The World Economic Forum and is currently helping them ideate and construct the industrial revolution centre in San Francisco. As you can imagine, it’s amazingly fun working with him."
What do you love most about your work?
"I have a background is social justice and STEM education, which means I spend a lot of time exploring why people don't have equal access and opportunities. Providing access to the kinds of programs and skills training the future will demand is the most exciting thing I do and I love when I see we’re moving the needle on that.
Helping kids learn new skills, watching them light up with excitement—that's just the best! I see the impact our programs are having in changing the way children approach math. These kids are moving away from feeling ‘stupid’ and are genuinely engaged and confident. I just love that!"
What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
"You don't have to have a highly technical background to learn about STEM. My team is made up of a diverse fleet of experts. Some of them certainly have a degree in coding or computer science, but some of them are students of the arts or other streams of science. You might not see yourself as STEM field material but you absolutely are! There is space for everyone so don't be discouraged by the acronym. When you think about it, tech is in every sector."
What is next for you?
"My husband has just overcome cancer. For the last year we’ve been fighting that battle and he was just recently told he is cancer free. When something like this happens, you can't help but to evaluate your life. I’ve been taking the time to take care of myself and my family and spending more time just enjoying everyday.
I love the work that I do because it's meaningful but I have also prioritized making sure that I’m spending a good amount of time with the people and that I love. Supporting and nurturing that is really important to me because the first 40 years of being an entrepreneur I spent more time building the company then I did being home".
What is one thing you can’t live without?
"I thrive on helping people, and that's why I became a teacher in the first place. So whatever it is I am doing, whether it’s entrepreneurship or I’m in the classroom, it always has to be at heart something that is helpful to humanity, I can't live without that."
Can you tell us a little bit more about STEAM360?
"I have seen that a lot of students from underserved and underprivileged areas that don't have access to high-quality STEM experiences. Some schools don't have the same technology as other schools. Some schools don't have access to high-quality programming and equipment. These are things they need to succeed and engage kids in these kinds of learning experiences. You can't be what you can't see.
I’m so excited to bring programs and equipment to communities in need because it is sparking dreams they might not have otherwise had and that is ultimately the goal of the charitable work STEAM360 will continue to support."