ATE centers show off their stuff at Mall of America

At the Experience STEAM event August 10-14 in the Mall of America, youths fly drones in simulators and in the drone cage in one of the hands-on exhibits. (All photos: Pine Peak Media)

Shopping malls may have lost much of their luster for hanging out, but the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is not your average mall.

Each day, about 170,000 people visit the facility, which includes stores, an indoor amusement park and many events throughout the year, ranging from concerts, to celebrity appearances and fashion shows. Add showcasing of Advanced Technological Education (ATE) centers to the list.

Last week, educators from eight ATE centers affiliated with community colleges around the U.S. and from 33 Minnesota State Colleges and Universities staffed the Experience STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) demonstrations at the mall.

“This opportunity gives us a chance to meet people where they are,” said Aaron Sykes, STEAM outreach coordinator and event director for the National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT) at Northland Community and Technical College (Minnesota).  

Since January, Sykes and his NCAT colleagues have planned the five-day event that features:

  • A STEAM Carnival with five- to 30-minute interactions with technologies like welding and quantum science
  • Multi-hour workshops on topics such as mechatronics and vacuum technology for high-tech manufacturing
  • Professional development programs for educators
  • A VEX robotics competition and a youth drone competition (see a video of the youth finals)
  • Outdoor autonomous vehicle demonstrations as part of the mall’s 30th-anniversary celebration.

A taste of hands-on learning

Technical educators and subject-matter experts staffed the interactive activities spread out in the public areas of the massive mall to help seed “value-added conversations” that were intended to move people from hands-on experiences with augmented reality and geospatial technologies to thinking about their career options and enrolling in college courses.

“We give them as little barriers as we can to have these value-added conversations,” Sykes said in an interview before the event.    

Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minnesota) tries his hand at operating a robot using virtual technology.

For instance, at the drone exhibit, children, teens and adults had the opportunity to fly actual drones in a cage, learn a bit about programming drones, or fly a drone in a simulation. After these hands-on experiences with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), individuals had a chance to talk with personnel from Northland Community and Technical College about its UAS maintenance technician program, Federal Aviation Administration staffers, and people employed at two Minnesota startups.

“It goes from having to do all the research by yourself in an area where you know nothing, to literally having all the experts there,” Sykes said.

In addition to NCAT, the other ATE programs — which are funded by the National Science Foundation — providing interactive educational experiences at the event included:

Strong local support

In addition to the strong representation from the ATE community, NCAT garnered sponsorship support from large enterprises that use an array of technologies, such as Best Buy, the Mayo Clinic and Thomson Reuters. Nonprofit participants included Marine Inspiration for Innovation (MATE II) and SpaceTEC, which were formerly community college-based ATE centers. Local nonprofit involvement included Marnita’s Table, which offers intentional social interactions to promote equity and inclusion.

Partnerships with state and local government agencies included Metro Transit providing free bus passes to anyone attending Experience STEAM.

Teens volunteering through Marnita’s Table help younger children in a hands-on media lab.

Marnita’s Table recruited young people from the urban communities it serves to assist at the event staff as workforce fellows. They received a $100 stipend and $15 food voucher for each four-hour shift worked.

Kalise Zackery and Jordyn Walker, both 13, were among the Marnita’s Table volunteers and happily talked Thursday about what they did to help at the mall, where they usually hang out with their friends.

Zackery assisted with the line of people waiting to fly drones in a cage. What she heard the supervisor of the drone exhibit tell people about drones didn’t persuade her to change her plans to be a nurse. She had seen drones before and was more impressed by the equipment at another exhibit.

“There were robots on the ground. It was really cool,” she said.

Walker said she was surprised by the size of one drone on display in the mall’s main rotunda, which was almost as big as a helicopter. She said she had previously not been interested in science and technology careers but she wanted to learn more.

“Before this, I’ve always wanted to own my own dance studio and be a dance teacher … But it definitely has made me think it [STEAM] is more cool,” she said.

Walker’s task last week was to encourage people to scan a QR code on hot and cold packs that were being given away near the colleges’ exhibits. Participants were entered into a raffle and asked to complete surveys.

Organizers of the event said they would study how effective the promotion is in encouraging people to consider technical careers and especially in recruiting residents for two-year college programs in advanced technology fields.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.