New after school program works out kids’ brains instead of their muscles

MUKILTEO, Wash.— The Lego pinwheel spins effortlessly and the kids giggle. A few rows back in the room, kids sit glued to a laptop.

Third-grader Sophia and her computer coding partner, fourth-grader Olivia, are just two of several dozen smiling kids here at the Stemtree after school program at St. Thomas More Elementary School.

“We’re doing coding, making games,” says Olivia. “There’s a lot of technology you can do, lots of things on computers.”

The duo say they don’t mind staying after school at all. Stemtree Mukilteo is about a year old here in Washington state. It’s part of a growing national chain.

Stemtree has four basic subjects -- computer coding, robotics, electricity and general science -- things a lot of kids might not be getting during the traditional school day.

“The kids need to know and feel good about and have fun with it,” says Sabrina Stewart, who runs Stemtree here.

After spending 17 years in IT, she was ready for a change. And with most after school programs centered on athletics, the center she runs with her husband is certainly different.

“Education is a really important thing to do all day long, instead of ending at the school day, than run around or watch TV or just hang,” says Sabrina.

And it seems they’ve found a unique niche in a very tech-driven part of the country.

“Especially in this area, we see so much technology in the jobs around here. And right now the statistics show we don’t have the kids to fill those jobs because the ones that are graduating, they’re not getting the skills sets that they need," she says. 

So far, Stemtree Mukilteo has partnered with several elementary schools, the Pacific Science Center, and Girl Scout troops. But the curriculum can fit for any kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. 

Eric Stewart says it’s the equivalent of vitamins in ice cream.

“When we start off, we say, ‘What do you think is going to happen?'" says Eric. “Then they do it and we ask, ‘Did what you thought  was going to happen actually happen?’, which is the scientific methodology. And you ask, ‘What else can you do with this?’, which is the basis of critical thinking.”

This kind of work doesn’t feel like homework. It’s more like a fun puzzle to figure out. And the results, he says, can happen right before their very eyes.

“And that’s the amazing part of this,” Eric says, "when you see that spark go off, they’re starting to be interested in the stuff.”

And whether it’s summer camps, one-on-one time in the center, or a birthday party here — learning and fun seem to go hand in hand.

For parents, the scheduling couldn’t be easier.

“There’s no set schedule,” says Eric. “We just ask the parents to pick the day of the week that they want.”

And back at St. Thomas More, when it comes to computer coding, Olivia and Sophia both brush off the idea that coding is challenging.

Stemtree’s business is picking up steam. Often it seems parents find them, and then introduce them to elementary schools to get involved too. Costs vary based on what programs you’re interested in, and scholarships are available.

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