Volunteering with Skagit STEM

Jump straight to the activity I designed for the STEM Like Me! mentor program here

Finding Skagit STEM

Soon after moving to Sedro-aaaWoolley I came across the CityScene magazine. Flipping through the pages of the January 2019 issue I came across an article about the Skagit STEM Network - “Preparing Students for the Future”. The article, written by the network’s director Michelle Jusdon, talked about the program’s growth after being formed in 2016. It has since expanded from the Sedro-Woolley School District to include all of Skagit County. The network is actually one of Washington STEM’s 10 statewide networks, a great nonprofit organization which I didn’t know existed!

A summary of the network from the article -

Skagit STEM Network supports and promotes activities that no single member of the Network can address alone. This includes advocating for equity for all students and for the value of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education leading to high-demand, living-wage jobs for students; supporting a range of Career Connected Learning experiences that move young adults toward lifelong learning; and working to bridge the gap between education and industry.

The next page of the magazine had an article about the network’s Career Connected Learning (CCL) program written by Shaun Doffing, the CCL Coordinator. The article mentioned highlights from the past year including the STEM Like Me!, Skagit Girls Tech Event, and Washington State Opportunity Scholarship which, combined, have connected to nearly 1,000 students in Skagit County. The network had also secured a Career Connect WA Grant totaling $957k to continue the CCL efforts in Skagit County.

Getting Involved

I quickly became interested how I could become involved and support the STEM network. After reaching out to Shaun, we met up a week later to talk about opportunities within the network, primarily the STEM Like Me! (SLM!) program. SLM! connects 7th grade students with industry mentors in a familiar classroom setting. Working one class at a time, a group of at least four industry mentors share their STEM-related career and education pathways that got them there. Shaun tries to find industry mentors that are diverse in their careers, experience and background. In Skagit County, specifically, many students come from Hispanic and Native American communities. He invited me to see the program in action a couple weeks later before committing to anything.

I observed a SLM! me program at Anacortes Middle School. The class met the industry mentors in the school library for their class period. Groups of 5-6 students rotated around the room to sit with each industry mentor. On this day there was a Web Designer, Geologist, Neurologist and Nurse. Each mentor had designed some kind of a roughly 8 minute activity to keep students engaged while sharing their experience. The Neurologist had students build neural structures with marshmallows and toothpicks while the Nurse had students pumping pig lungs with air to show the effects of smoking. Quite fun!

Designing an Activity

So, I thought I should give it a go. Designing a quick, sub 10 minute activity was all I needed to be a mentor in an upcoming SLM! program. Although I thought it would be easy, this took some time to think through. At first I wanted to design an activity that connected my technical and agricultural experiences - but nothing really came to mind. So I started looking online for more Computer Science related activities. Turns out there are tons of resources, even entire curriculums developed to teach CS to kids.

Here are some of the sites I found:

Problem was, it was hard to find a hands on activity that was was also relatively short. What I ended up finding was a Routing and Deadlock activity (also called “The Orange Game”) buried in the “Classic” CS Unplugged site.

The idea of the game is that students sit in a circle, with all but one student holding two pieces of fruit. Each student has a type of fruit they want to end up with, but the fruit begins randomly distributed throughout the circle. Students can only pass fruit to the one empty hand in the circle and only if they are sitting directly next to the student with the empty hand. As you probably tell, this quickly turns into a simplified “Routing and Deadlock” problem!

For my activity I decided to use colored balloons instead of fruit. I thought this would help keep students interested, even though I think it kept students too distracted from the activity at hand. Bean bags might be a good alternative next time…

Putting it to practice

Shaun had me mentor at a SLM! program at Mount Vernon Middle School in late April. We met with two classes during their 7th grade science period that day. Each class gave the mentors groups of roughly 5-6 students at a time.

Leading the activity

Leading the activity

With my first group I started our activity standing in a circle with myself participating. I assigned everyone their own color and passed out balloons - but quickly realized this made things too complicated. After a couple minutes introducing myself, explaining the activity, and a slow start to the game there simply wouldn’t be time to solve the puzzle in time. Adding myself, the 6th person, made the puzzle much harder to complete than without!

For the next couple groups I removed myself from the game and just led the activity. I also didn’t focus on completing the game, but rather just lead students to the point of “deadlock” where they have to give up their own balloon to pass others’ around the circle. This worked better - but still not excellent. Assigning everyone a color was a little complicated.

For the last few groups of the day I further simplified the activity. I explained the game while distributing balloons and didn’t assign anyone a color. Rather, I said everyone should end up with two balloons of the same color. This made the game go quite faster - and still allowed for the “deadlock” problem to occur.

Discussion Points

I prefaced the activity by explaining it would demonstrate the concept of “Routing and Deadlock” which is something that we encounter in Computer Science, and our everyday lives. The CS Unplugged instructions provide NYC traffic and bank systems going down as two examples to share.

After playing the game for awhile I broke into further discussion. As the instructions suggest, you can prompt students for what techniques they used to solve the problem. Many repeated the idea I conveyed during the game, “that we must give up our own balloon, to pass on someone elses.” I also asked where else they experience Deadlock in their lives - many repeat by saying traffic and internet. I liked prompting “What about video games?” - many 7th graders experience “lag” in their online gaming. But what about a LAN party? Less lag? Why? 😉

My favorite response from a student was “the lunch line!” This would be a good, relatable example to use in the future, too.

If there is time, it’s also fun to talk about the topology of the “network” we played the activity in. (For this I drew out the topologies on note paper as I mentioned them - having pre-made drawings might be better)

  • “Is being in a circle better than a straight line?”
  • “What if you could pass balloons across the circle?”
  • “What about a grid?”
  • “What about a star?”
  • “Why are roads built in grids? Roundabouts?”


Overall, I feel like this activity usually got some good discussion going! On top of explaining what it is I do and how I navigated my path through college, I easily filled the 8 minute activity time. In the future I wouldn’t use balloons as my object, and I would try to find ways to streamline my entry into the activity. I would also create some good, reusable visual representations of the “topologies” I mentioned above.

In the future I would like to create some kind of an interactive coding activity to do with students. I’ve though of building a miniature smart-greenhouse, and try to tie in physical components (switches or NFC cards?) students could use to help “program” the greenhouse to do the correct functions (water plants when it’s dry, turn on lights, open vents, etc.) If I have the time and get to making this, then I think it could work great! I may find, however, that in the end the simple “Routing and Deadlock” activity is better for the SLM! format.

At the end of the day, getting the students engaged and talking about what we are doing is the primary goal. If students can think back and relate to any of these STEM-related careers while navigating high school and deciding their post-graduation plans, then I think we’ve succeeded as mentors.

I hope to continue volunteering with the STEM Like Me! program into the future! There won’t be any more programs until the 2020 school year, but get in touch with Shaun Doffing at sdoffing@swsd101.org if you’re interested! They are continually working towards their goal of reaching every student in Skagit County (and are almost there!)

“As long as we continue to have Industry Mentors from STEM-related careers donate two hours per year to this program, our goal of doubling the number of students impacted by this program will be achieved.”

- Shaun Doffing, Career Connected Learning Coordinator