Feature Story | 5-Mar-2024

Hands-on science creates winning conditions for local youth

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

For kids in underserved communities, access to STEM experiences does not come as a given. Candice Halbert, YO-STEM founder and chemist at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is working to change this. Halbert devotes her time outside the lab to building STEM opportunities for youth in nearby communities.

YO-STEM, or Youth Outreach in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, has served the local community for seven years, and this marks year three for its competitive co-ed robotics teams. Currently, YO-STEM robotics teams, Radium and Gr8ness, rank 16 and 17 out of 145 teams in Tennessee registered for the middle-school robotics competition hosted by VEX on March 8 and 9 in Hendersonville, Tenn. The two teams are also the only Knox County teams in the state’s top 20 for this robotics competition.

“Some of these schools are written off, like the kids can't reach incredible heights,” Halbert said. “They absolutely can because they prove it over and over again. Excellence comes out of these kids, too. (They) just need the right opportunities.”

Landing in the top four at the state competition means securing a chance to compete at the world championship in May. If they succeed, it will mark the second time YO-STEM youth compete with other teams from China, England, Colombia, Ghana, Native American nations, Egypt, Morocco, Thailand, Australia and more.

Halbert started her career at ORNL almost 20 years ago when the Spallation Neutron Source, or SNS, began operations in 2006. Annually, the SNS draws thousands of researchers from all over the world to study materials at the atomic scale for everything from new treatments for diseases and advancements in national security to the evolution of electric vehicles and innovations in clean energy. Her area of expertise in chemistry comes to life on a scientific instrument, the Liquids Reflectometer, used to better understand advanced materials for consumer products, such as better batteries and better medicines.

“Often, I am the only woman in the room and usually the only person of color,” Halbert said. “To alleviate this, I do what I can to grow the STEM pipeline — especially for people of different backgrounds. Thanks to ORNL, along with the City of Knoxville, we’ve had consistent local support over the years. But YO-STEM funds are running low.”

Some of Halbert’s lab colleagues send their own children to YO-STEM. Jon Taylor, a division director in the Neutron Sciences Directorate where Halbert works, said, “My daughter really enjoys YO-STEM because it doesn’t bring the pressures of school. She can experiment, and do so with rigor, and have fun without the worries of being graded. She can legitimately explore.”

Halbert encountered a unique situation last year where she had to adapt to working with a neurodivergent sixth grader who has autism and ADHD. Halbert felt uncertain whether the time was right for the young man to join YO-STEM robotics. However, after working with the parents to develop a plan for success and a lot of hard work, he has become a tremendous resource for the team.

“We gave him a tool that allowed him to virtually program a robot. This meant he could make incremental changes on his own time and work through different problems without the usual distractions,” Halbert said. “I'm really proud of him. He stepped up. Now, he’s the reason Team Radium won two trophies this year. His code earned us the points we needed to win.”

“And I grew as a person,” Halbert added. “I needed to change the way I delivered the information to him and this was extremely valuable.”

Halbert also recalls how one student knew he liked science but, like many kids, did not know what kind of science he might like to do and did not understand his options. However, after joining the robotics team, winning the state championship and competing at the world level two years ago, he sings a different tune. YO-STEM boosted his confidence and now he dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer.

“It keeps him engaged in things he is passionate about,” said Shawna Jackson, the student’s mom. “YO-STEM gives them things I never would have imagined.”

“They need to know someone they know cares,” Halbert said. “Middle school is a really difficult time. A lot of what I do is create safe learning spaces for them. I provide them with opportunities and a sense of belonging. Then we discover together how to shine through STEM.”

Donations for the state championship can be made here or donate directly to YO-STEM here. You can also track progress for Team Radium and Team Gr8tness during the state competition.

YO-STEM’s robotics teams need floor leveling for their workspace. Contact Candice Halbert at halbertce@ornl.gov.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit https://energy.gov/science — Sumner Brown Gibbs

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