Mobile Lab to Bring STEAM into Northern Virginia Classrooms

Monica Nichols’ twenty-plus years working in IT management for the federal government belies the fact that she struggled with math in school.

“I was placed in remedial math when I first went to college,” Nichols recalls of  her time at Michigan State University. Math struggles aside, Nichols didn’t let this setback discourage her from graduating with a degree in Applied Engineering and going on to earn a master’s degree in Systems Engineering from Virginia Tech. She also has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a STEM focus from Marymount University. The motivating factor? Her passion for the field. “I really wanted to be an engineer, so I put in the hard work to be what I wanted to be.”

Now Nichols wants to pay it forward by being that motivating factor for others, especially girls of color, through her Pink Space Theory Mobile Fab Lab makerspace.

The makerspace will be a van outfitted with technical tools such as 3-D printers and laser vinyl cutters that will roll out and set up at schools, camps, and day cares to expose children from pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade to STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] concepts through project-based learning challenges.

Students will participate in projects that include learning how to build gliders, create coding for video games, and make an instrument.

The curriculum is pre-designed by an industry leader in science education and since 2015, has already reached more than 14,000 students and teachers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. This will be the first such program in Northern Virginia, and Nichols sees the need.

While the lab will be for boys and girls, Nichols laments that, “Even though I’ve been in this field awhile, I am still not seeing enough women, especially African American women, in engineering. I think girls turn away from these types of careers because they may be afraid of the challenge, that it’s too difficult.”

Nichols can attest to the fact that pursing such careers can be a challenge, but she hopes the lab will teach students how to overcome shortcomings in pursuit of goals, while exposing them to skills to help them keep up in a rapidly changing high-tech world. “Critical and creative thinking, team-building and communications – these are the soft skills that will help our children compete in the 21st century,” she says.

Nichols has set up her company as a non-profit and is working with a board to pursue funding to purchase the curriculum and the equipment for the lab. She is also securing partnerships with advisers at the University of William and Mary; volunteers from Northern Virginia Community College; and tech help from Nova Labs, the largest makerspace in the DMV area.

And about that name – Pink Space Theory? Nichols says the name is a combination of a nod to her favorite fitness facility where she is encouraged to reach higher fitness goals and a favorite professor during her college years who allowed students “pink time” away from class to pursue creative, instructional and fun activities to enhance their classroom learning.

“That’s what I want students to get from the Pink Space Theory Mobile Fab Lab experience,” says Nichols, “I want to augment students’ classroom instruction by providing a personalized curriculum that encourages a life-long love of STEM learning.”

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