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To bridge the gap between a lack of school resources and a rising need for STEM students, Katie Stephens created STEM subscription box MakeCrate.

Story and photo by Harshita Avirneni

As the world continues to become technologically driven, the need for STEM education is increasingly crucial, but not every school has the resources for coding classes and robotics clubs. Educator Katie Stephens founded MakeCrate in 2016 to bridge this gap. Through the company’s themed subscription boxes, Stephens is teaching kids engineering and coding skills they might not learn at school. 

“I walked into my son’s robotics club after school in eighth grade and looked at the wealth of both components and instruction that he had available to him,” Stephens says. “And it just, it really hit me. It was like one of those moments that I thought, ‘This isn’t fair.’ My kids have this tremendous opportunity because there happens to be a teacher at their school that knows about this stuff and there happens to be funding at their school that provides for it. But there was nothing inherent in what he was learning that shouldn’t be available to every kid, no matter who their parents or teacher happens to be. And I was just at a place professionally where that problem was interesting to me. So, I thought, ‘How can I solve this problem?’ ”

MakeCrate currently offers two kits: Introduction to Engineering and Robox. Each kit comes with parts to make robots and a variety of projects, and the online course offers instructions, video tutorials and troubleshooting guides. Customers can choose to subscribe to either box on a monthly basis or receive them every three, six or 12 months. Currently, MakeCrate has 150 active users. 

“We start at this really, really simple place, where a kid is learning to light up an LED,” Stephens says. “But by the time they’re done, they’re now controlling things with the Bluetooth or they know how to use motors. They start off with a six-step project and end up with a 30-step project, so there’s this continuum of skills.”

MakeCrate utilizes the Arduino technology for both the hardware and software and uses C++ as its primary programming language, which is one of the most difficult. Stephens agrees the language is not the simplest to start with and says that’s why her team has broken down the coding into several tiers. 

“We have fully written downloadable code that they can use if they are not ready to write their own code,” Stephens says. “We also have video tutorials that walk you through the process of writing a sketch from beginning to end if they are ready to write their own code. And then, to cap that bridge, what we’ve done is create a series of challenge exercises that help them go into existing code and change it in ways to make the product, whatever machine they’ve built, behave differently so that they can start to understand how the code is structured without having to write the entire thing because of the complexity.”

Customer Tricia Knorr and her 9-year-old son have subscribed to MakeCrate for several months. Knorr says she was looking for a robotics camp for the summer when she stumbled upon MakeCrate. 

“I think it’s important for several reasons, but mainly, I don’t think my child is getting that type of instruction at school at all,” Knorr says. “What I particularly like about it is it’s not revolved so much around ‘Minecraft’ or videogames. [He’s] being exposed to different programs on the computer that [he]wouldn’t so much at school until [he’s] maybe at an older age. It’s giving [him] the opportunity to see how things work in a different way, which I think is important.”

Customer Tricia Bailey, who is Stephens’ former colleague, agrees with Knorr. Bailey has two daughters and they were some of the first customers of MakeCrate, subscribing in December 2016. Bailey says they stopped the subscription for a bit because life got in the way but are planning to subscribe once again. 

“I think having STEM skills is really important to kids now,” Bailey says. “It’s something I wish was more emphasized when I was in school. I wish I had been encouraged to do more STEM things and get better at it. I think that that is really important. I think [MakeCrate] is helping to raise the profile of those things and make is seem fun and not a chore to do.”

Stephens hopes to increase MakeCrate subscribers in the local community and update the coding curriculum for younger students. One of the biggest requests she has gotten is for products aimed at younger students, including those in elementary school. Stephens says an expansion beyond the company’s current 11-to-15 age demographic should be ready to launch in September. 

“I hope that [kids] are becoming aware that they are capable of doing something that they maybe didn’t know before,” Stephens says. “There are aspects of problem-solving and persistence that come from doing these sorts of things that I think are as important, if not more important, than knowing how to write lines of code. The ability to take a 20-part circuit and build it—and probably not build it right the first time and have to go back and figure out where [they went]wrong—and just learn to stick through that process and reason through that process and come out the end of it successful, I think that that’s really what, ultimately, I’m hoping our customers are getting out of it.”

When interacting with customers, Stephens often sees more interest from boys than girls. At the STEM-focused Maker Faire event, she’s had families approach her booth with a daughter and son, but often, only the son will want to try out the MakeCrate kits. 

“I turn to the sister and say, ‘Would you like to try too?’ and she’ll say, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ ” Stephens says. “And the brother has never questioned whether he can’t do it but the sister does, for some reason. I say, ‘I guarantee you can do it,’ and they step up next to their brother and be as successful as them. To see a young girl experience for the first time that she can do this technical thing that she thought she couldn’t do just lights me up every single time. Knowing that I’m having, even in that very small scale, some impact like that makes the hard work absolutely worth it every single time.”

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