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Edutainment and STEM for All --Adventures with DLR Foundation Director Shaakira Hardy

Updated: May 24, 2023

What is an edutainer? How do we use entertainment to inspire STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for and with young students?

In this episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast, we talk with DLR Foundation executive director Shaakira Hardy. Shaakira has worked in roles such as science training, program and curriculum development, district-wide science coordinating and directing within two school districts in Florida, Mr. Barrington Irving’s The Flying Classroom in conjunction with Hawker Beechcraft Air Systems, NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and YERU STEM Education. Her current mission to encourage space science/astronomy enthusiasm and education in all ages via STEM as a passion which will hopefully continue to encourage children towards careers in those areas. Grab a cup of coffee, learn about what the DLR Foundation and YERU STEM Education offer, and sign your family up for a free STEM virtual experience this weekend!

DLR Foundation logo

What is the DLR Foundation?

Shaakira: So the DLR Foundation is a nonprofit organization servicing the southern parts of the United States, but willing to service the entire country virtually. So just hands on, face to face, Florida and Georgia. But our virtual programming is all around the country, and actually the virtual programming has reached the Caribbean islands and Europe. London was a part of our Zoom sessions really good. And then parts of Rome as well. So the DLR Foundation was founded based on the memory of Darryl Lovett Rolle. He was an awesome kid. He met his demise, unfortunately, premature of his birthday and his wedding, and it was just an unfortunate thing. He just drowned all of a sudden. He loved aquatics, everything water was about, he was about it. And he was a computer analyst, so he was definitely into tech, computer engineering, and he loved fitness. He loved giving back to the community. So all the things that he embodied are pillars in different modules. That's a part of the DLR Foundation, just memorializing and just keeping his spirit alive here in some capacity.

So the DLR Foundation, the mission is definitely on a mission to, one, make sure that it reduces the amount of drownings that happens in individuals of all ages from zero to 100, but definitely in children. Every year in the state of Florida, by the time school resumes that summer, we would have had anywhere between two to four classrooms full of fourth graders that will pass away that summer due to drowning. And it's just heartbreaking to think about that, that when school resumes, there'll be a couple of empty seats, and that's something. It just has a chill through your body to even think of it, and you fight back the tears just thinking about it. And what happens is we just work to combat that, to spread water, safety, education, not just for children, but definitely for adults as well. And you can't just think about children because we had twin teenagers here in South Florida who passed away, unfortunately, due to a drowning, trying to save one another. We had literally over the weekend in the northern part of the state where an adult drowned trying to save a teenager. So this is why water safety education isn't for just children. So we start there trying to educate the masses about water safety, drowning education, and understanding the importance, because anything can happen. You can be at an event, you can have that friend that just plays too much. They're playing around. Anything can happen. Accidents can happen where a car can veer off into a body of water. So you need to be prepared by all means.

So through the water safety education piece, one way we bring children in is children love science. So learning about not just water safety, but the other pieces that actually are tangentially connected. So when you think about water safety, when you think about drownings, you want to think about respiration, the respiratory system, the lungs, vital signs, the physics of water, buoyancy. So we bring all these things in, and that's when we bring in STEM. We have our science connection there that actually is tied in. And then in addition to water safety and literally learning about the chemistry and physics of water, the wonders of water, it also branches into now we can teach marine biology, oceanography. So those things tie in as well because Darryl Lovett Rolle was definitely a lover of all things aquatic. And then moving out from there, we tie in engineering as far as technology. And there's even culinary arts because he loved to make candy apples and cookies, and he was great at making French toast. So those are things that we love to teach kids as well. So the culinary arts piece is in there as well.

DLR Foundation is the nonprofit arm of YERU STEM Education. How do they work together to provide STEM education?

Shaakira: One thing I forgot to mention was the health and wellness piece. So one thing about this young man that the foundation was founded in his memory, he had a special place. Like at his funeral, there was just tons of outpouring from senior citizens. In addition to the young group who was in attendance, there were tons of seniors that just had so many great things to say about him. And so there is a health and wellness component, and it's the aging gracefully component. And that aging gracefully component just lets seniors know that life isn't over after a certain age. Life should be starting there. And what you should be focusing on is happiness and extending the life you have and continuing to improve on the quality of life that you have. So that's where the health and wellness piece comes in. And with that, they delve into aromatherapy and the power of plants and how plant medicine and plant health actually can work towards being an extension of health and wellness. All right. And then everything going back to West African drumming, all of these pieces that actually is so high vibrational, lifting the spirits, that's all going to improve the quality of life once you raise your vibration. So that's another piece that's a part of the DLR Foundation that falls under the health and wellness module.

How did you wind up working with the foundation?

Shaakira: I was related to Darryl Rolle, so that's of course, I'm sure you probably made the connection when I mentioned the information about the funeral. Going back some history of just part of the inception of the DLR Foundation, YERU STEM Education would go out into the community and want to service individuals, but some communities could not afford certain services. And it's heartbreaking because education is education, and you want all kids to have fun, whether you're working with optica, proton, pat, cosmic cow, whoever's out there working with kids or working with the community. The thing is you just feel so heartbroken that you can't provide to everyone, or they can't afford services or someone's invoiced, and that's just a price they can't afford. And we just wanted to find a way to be able to have fun, just to be able to not just have this burden of you have to bill them to know that you have monies in a particular a lot. You have a lot of monies to be able to offer programming to the community free and just being able to be a free spirit and have fun with kids and educate just to change lives. That's why we wanted the foundation here, to just have that non restriction to be able to stay free or there's no price attached to it. That tense feeling kind of falls or ends.

Talk about your love of science and STEM and how it led to your own adventure in learning.

Shaakira: Okay, so you can see from my background that I am a space geek. I've been a space geek for over 20 years. I might look young, but I'm not. So I've been in the sciences for in excess of 20 years, but astronomy in particular, I've actually done various projects in space science from studying extremophile cultures on planet Mars. I'm an Osiris Rex ambassador. And under that mission, the Osiris Rex mission, it will be back it'll be back here on September 23. If all goes right, it'll land here in the United States if all goes well, and we will be able to study a sample of asteroid. So that's the current mission that I've been working with. That's a NASA mission. So I've been working in space science and just the industry from working as a hardcore scientist, citizen scientist, and just working as a trainer, a teacher trainer for years. This has been a 20 year embarking. And in that when I transitioned from being a classroom teacher, because at one point I was doing research in space science and doubling that as working in the classroom. When that period of being a classroom teacher came to an end, I was able to spread my wings a little more and work in the community more. And I didn't have the restriction, any restrictions. I was able to develop, develop programs. And just now we can look at the community, look at community needs and now work towards meeting those needs.

So, like I said, it was just so liberating and a freeing of an experience to move from just traditional classroom to community and really bringing the classroom to the community because you're still learning. And what we love to call it here, we call it edutainment.

Students interacting at a table with beakers and color changing experiments.
Students participating in DLR Foundation sponsored activities.

Shaakira: So the key thing is making sure kids have an experience that they'll never forget. So just going back to just water safety and water education, they can learn how to swim. But that experience, pairing it with the sciences makes it memorable. It becomes applicable at that time.

And when it's applicable, they don't forget it because it becomes an experience. We can think back to a lot of things that happen in our life. When it's an experience, you never forget it. It stuck. And it will be with you all of your days. So that's what we call our type of education. We call it edutainment because we want to make it an experience for kids.

And so you were asking me about myself. That's how I got into science. Someone created an experience for me. And I was at Florida State University. And I had a professor. I went off to school as a literature, a literary major. So I love reading, I love writing poems, all of that, and I still do that. But the universe has something else for me. The universe introduced me to Dr. Q, this amazing biology professor, and he brought science alive for me. And that year, my freshman summer, I changed my major and I never went back.

But I started to see where everything that happens I remember I was listening to a lecture once, and one thing that stuck with me in that lecture is we are exactly where we're supposed to be. We are. You may not think you are. Even when you feel you haven't accomplished everything you're supposed to accomplish in life, it doesn't matter. You're right where you're supposed to be.

If you have goals you didn't meet and you're feeling bad about it, don't feel bad because you're right where you're supposed to be. You might be in the learning phase. This might be the learning phase, and you may not have that thing yet because you wouldn't know how to deal with it when you get to it. So what do you need to do if you really want to get to it faster? You need to start speeding up your learning and education process and start preparing more. You're right where you're supposed to be.

I went off to college as a literary major, and I wanted to go into Language Arts. I went because I did have that passion, but at some point, I married the two, and I see the DLR Foundation as marrying my literary side and the science side. And STEAM allows you to do that, to marry language arts and science. So even though Dr. Q educated me and he brought science alive for me enough for me to change my major, I still have that piece of going off to school as a person who wanted to go into literature. It's still there. It was embedded, and it's still being incorporated into everything. It's a big melting pot of what I'm doing now.

Dr Diane: Well, and I think that's where the work that you do and the work that I do align so beautifully is we both are so passionate about that importance of connecting the language arts to the STEM, the language arts to the science, because they all go together. And there's a lot being said right now about the science of reading and about looking at how we're teaching reading in the schools. And so much of it, I think, is connected to, yes, you've got to teach the phonics. You've got to use the science to teach reading, but you've got to embed reading across the curriculum.

When science is edutaining, you're going to grab kids attention, you're going to get them excited, and then you've got these authentic opportunities to read and write connected into the making connections with the World.

So what would be a good recipe for solid edutainment?

Shaakira: A good recipe? That's a great question, Diane. So a good recipe for solid edutainment. So me personally, I love to extract roots, prefixes and suffixes. So if you think about the word edutaining, entertaining education, when you think of education, you just need to have a manual. Make sure you're hitting the national science standard. So make sure that there is a takeaway where they are learning core science. Make sure there are no misconceptions. All right? Misconceptions can become cultural. It can be cultural where they've learned this in the household. So that's one of the major roles of science teachers, and I've known that for years. It's hard to unravel misconceptions in kids’ minds because a lot of times it's embedded generationally.

So make sure you're presenting true, concrete education and content. And one way to make sure that it's concrete is to make sure they are receiving an experience, because the one way to unravel a misconception is with an experience. And you can create that experience through entertaining them because they won't forget it. And it's coming to life in the front of them. When it comes to life, it's evidence.

When you think of science and scientists and research, how do you rebut that? How do you negate that? When you have evidence in front of you and then repetition, seeing it from different angles and making a real world connection, that's entertainment. Making sure the kids receive an experience. But the key thing is that there is core content that is not riddled with misconceptions and to make sure that it's an experience that they get to take away and that they won't forget it.

Dr Diane: I think that makes so much sense. And then building onto that, when you're layering and you're providing those experiences, how do you weave in the literacy? How do you weave in that arts piece of STEAM?

Shaakira: So the STEAM piece, I usually go into it, and I would have planned to bring this in in advance. So one way to do this is to bring back some of those different best practices that we may have had. Not most teachers know of literary best practices. A lot of high school teachers might not because they have one topic that they teach towards. But elementary school teachers are really good at this because they teach various topics throughout the school day, so they can be really good at that interdisciplinary approach, right? So one thing I would do is use different strategies. Vocabulary is key in science, and that's one thing that even a high school teacher knows. Because I taught high school, I really began working with the little ones when I became more of a community educator. Or you can call me an informal educator, sure. But vocabulary, science within itself is just an entirely new vocabulary. Abiogenesis, nucleosynthesis. These are words. I mean, you say and you're like, okay, what do you mean, but even those words can be broken down into roots, prefixes, and suffixes. So that's another way to delve into it, and that a child can figure out the meaning of a word by not even looking it up in the dictionary. Roots, prefixes, and suffixes. So that's one way to bring it in. And like, vocabulary games where kids would be able to compete to see how they can unravel a word and figure out the definition, or team up and work with other people so you feel a little more confident working as a team that will earn you coins and you will work towards getting a prize.

So taking experience, making literature fun, delving into vocabulary by gamifying it and making it a game, that's one thing I've done. And then also make the full lab activity.

So let's say they're doing a learning lab, a STEM lab, a remediation lab. We've had the opportunity to focus the entire lab around a book. So we would start with whatever the concept, the science concept, we want to make sure we convey for the day. We have our introductory piece, and then we would do some reading excerpts or read the entire book to them. And then we come back later and the reaction will have happened. Or then they could see the change that has happened. And then you wrap it up through, like a waterfall.

And then you make the connection between the book and what you're experiencing through the science. And that's edutainment because you have the educational piece they're learning, and then you have the science piece that has been happening while you're reading.

So if something was supposed to be reacting, or diffusion was supposed to be taking place, or something was supposed to be crossing across if something was supposed to be crossing across a membrane tongue twister and like an osmotic reaction or something, if osmosis is supposed to be taking place, that's happening while you're reading. So they get a chance to once the book is over, now we go make observations, and then you make the connection and wrap everything up. So that's another way I've connected literature also, so I love to hit vocabulary and then full labs that are incorporated with an actual book where the theme of the book somewhere will pull out a science concept that's wrapped up in there somewhere.

Do you have favorite books that are sort of go to as you take science on the road into the community?

Shaakira: So we have a pilot who actually wrote his own book, and this one is called Homer Goes to Flight School. And it's definitely to promote more kids, in case you didn't know, there is definitely a lag in individuals that are moving into the field of aviation. So we definitely want to promote more girls going into aviation. So this is definitely one I like to take out into certain communities so kids can see individuals who look like them that are moving into these STEM careers where they may be underrepresented and also seeing that it's possible. So Homer Goes to Flight School is definitely a great one with activities like this, if you're moving into talking about Bernoulli's principal, any aviation topics in regards to flight? Homer Goes to Flight School is a great one.

And then Seraphina and the Old Well is another great one when you want to go into water topics. So the water cycle is a great one, a great one to do with the little ones is the water walking rainbow. Water walking rainbow is one where you have water of different colors. So kids are learning about absorption. They're learning about diffusion and the movement of molecules across membranes. So you can take it and build that activity from little younger ages. Kindergarten, you can move this up to high school if you really want to move into discussing membranes. So that's where you have paper towels that are connecting different colors, and the water is walking. So we call it a water walking rainbow for the little ones. And you can also discuss the water cycle with Seraphina and the Old Well. So any water topics can be connected to this book. So you got aviation and you have your water topics. So these are really two cool ones that is taken out into the community often through the DLR Foundation.

Dr Diane: And you referenced just a moment ago, and I think it's so important for kids to be able to see role models who look like them, who are exposing possibilities for them in these fields. Are there particular stories that you like to tell, or do you guys bring in people from the community as part of what you're doing? How do you increase the exposure for kids to possibility?

Shaakira: So we embark upon the latter. The foundation and YERU has been really blessed with individuals that have been willing to give back themselves. So even the two books that I mentioned, the authors, Mr. Homer Randall, and then the author, Mrs. Georgia LeFlore. Mr. Homer Randall himself is a minority pilot and he moved out and started his own business. So he has a lot of time now as just as a private pilot to be able to give back to the community. So we bring in individuals that we built relationships with who are in those STEAM careers. Ms. Georgia, she, as an author, would definitely promote the A in STEAM, right? So she can come out and speak with kids from that a reading and language arts standpoint. So really, definitely partners. We bring them in instead of talking to them about these roles. Bring someone out who's doing it, who's been doing it for 10, 15, 20 years plus that looks like you, who can be a hands on inspiration because they're face to face with you either virtually or in person.

Shaakira: That's what we do. We bring out our partners. We call them partners because they support us and they never tell us no.

Dr Diane: Well, then you're doing something right if you're able to build those kind of partners and get them to partner with you on a regular basis.

What exciting projects are in the works?

Shaakira: We have a virtual session going on in May. We will have a STEM at Home session, and any and everyone's free to sign up for that one. The first 30 families to sign up before May 20 will have all materials included, and that one's going to be paid for by Florida International University and a the Chemical Society. The American Chemical Society. So they're a great partner of ours. As you can see, we love our partners. So all of your supplies will be covered, and that's taking place on May 27.

Dr Diane: Describe what STEM at Home is like.

Shaakira: It's taking place from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 27. And like I said, you probably can still, there's a few slots still open to sign up, so your materials are covered. But let's say you sign up and your materials aren't covered, you can still attend. What would happen if you weren't able to get into that cohort of individuals to get free materials? You would get a PDF where you can purchase your materials on your own and be ready to do some science with us. And these things happen. So STEM at Home happens quarterly.

And we will be hosting a Zoom. So instead of it being in person, there'll be a Zoom Session virtual, where you can tune in anywhere in the United States. And the cool things about our Zoom sessions, some of them whenever we pair with the Chemical Society materials, are free. So all you have to do is register for it through either through the website social media, or you can always DM us on any of the social media platforms, and we send you the registration link. So if you're following us, you'll know about it anyway. So that's one way to follow us on all social media, so you can always be in the loop about what's going on. So this is our spring session. This is hands on in person. There'll be another one to take place in the fall that will be virtual.

Dr Diane: Okay, so you do that every quarter. And if people want to be able to follow and find out about these events, where would they go?

Shaakira: So the best way to follow us would be on Facebook. You can just follow us at the DLR Foundation and also Instagram. Instagram is where we are. Also Foundation on Instagram as well. NOTE: You can follow DLR Foundation on Facebook and Instagram. You can follow YERU STEM Education on Facebook and Instagram. You can follow Shaakira Hardy on LinkedIn.

What are your STEM hopes for the future?

Shaakira: When we're thinking about the future, we think about innovation. So in regards to the future, I want kids to definitely embrace space science more, because space science and all of its discoveries is what has made life more comfortable for us on Earth. There are so many space spin offs from space research that allows us to enjoy many of the luxuries we enjoy now, from texting to FaceTime to comfort in certain shoes, to having a great bed rest to snacks you enjoy, like Capri Suns, M&Ms, anyone? So a lot of the things we enjoy are spin off from space research. Space is also a way to marry technology, engineering, and innovation. It is the movement forward. The whole reason why we're studying the asteroid venue is because we're testing for water. And there is the possibility that this can be another place that humans could inhabit and colonize. It can be another place for us to actually build colonies and inhabit. So definitely want kids to embrace space research. Know that you're always needed. Your ideas are needed. We have. A lot of space. That particular workforce is always moving out towards retirement. And who will fill their space? Literally, who's going to fill their space? If not, it be our new generation. And we have such wonderful minds. It's like every time we have a new generation come in, they're just so bright and innovative and creative. So definitely want to move into telling children to embrace space research, embrace innovation. Don't be afraid of it. Don't be afraid to think. And don't be afraid of STEM careers.

Headshot of Shaakira Hardy
Shaakira Hardy, Executive Director of the DLR Foundation

Dr Diane: Great. Well, Shaakira, thank you so much for coming and representing the DLR Foundation today. It has been such a privilege to talk to you, and I appreciated learning about Edutainment and all the wonderful things that you all do. We're going to have all of this in the show notes so that people can follow you. I encourage folks to sign up for those quarterly STEM sessions STEM at home, but also to get involved with Chemistry Week, both in the spring and in the fall, and to just check out the wonderful things that you all are offering for the community.

NOTE: You can follow DLR Foundation on Facebook and Instagram. You can follow YERU STEM Education on Facebook and Instagram. You can follow Shaakira Hardy on LinkedIn.

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