HAMLET — Jeff Epps of Richmond County Schools was named a Champion of Change for Tech Inclusion in a 2013 awards presentation at the White House for his work to expand science, technology, engineering and mathematics education opportunities to students from communities historically underserved or underrepresented in tech fields.
Now Epps is packing his bags after being invited to return to share his experiences and ideas with fellow honorees on Dec. 5.
“It’s a reunion for Champions of Change for Tech Inclusion,” Epps explained. “In 2013, Rachael Dalton-Taggart of 3D Systems nominated me because of the work we were doing in Richmond County Schools with 3-D printing, 3-D scanning. I ended up winning, went to the White House and received the honor on behalf of Richmond County and Richmond County Schools at that time.”
He said that in addition to the honor of winning the award, the company of like-minded educators was an experience that changed his life.
“It was a great thing, because I went up there and met people who were just as passionate as I was about teaching students STEM,” he said. “And I came back and was even more energized by that, so from 2013 up until now, that’s what we’ve been doing: exposing students to emerging technology such as 3-D printing, scanning, 3-D design, and it has evolved into several other programs.”
He said it all began with an open house in conjunction with 3D Systems that paved the way for weekend and summer technology camps.
“From there, we found out that students would enjoy coming to school on Saturday if you feed them and you make learning fun,” he said. “So that’s what we did. We got them some snacks and made learning fun, and they started showing up on Saturday. It was one Saturday a month throughout the school year. Every year since 2010, we’ve done a summer camp. Doing that plus the Saturday academy was a year-round thing. Then recently, we were invited to come over to Richmond Community College and do a summer camp last year.”
“I was watching them flying drones outside my window,” said Wylie Bell, director of marketing and communications for RCC.
“RCC is just such a cool place to do a summer camp, because you’ve got all this technology,” Epps said. “We were up in the Forte building and the kids were coming in every day and they were peeking into all those rooms with the cool technology and the robotic arms. Then, we were at the Cole flying drones and doing remote-control robots out in the lobby.
“On top of that, it evolved into a program over at Fayetteville State (University) called AGORA,” he continued. “In AGORA we have students from Richmond County Schools — as well as Cumberland County Schools — who attend Fayetteville State one Saturday a month and they get fed well. They go for eight months and we’ve had two cohorts of students. Our first cohort had three students and our second cohort had five students.”
Epps said AGORA students from Richmond County have competed in the Summer Hackathon on the campus.
“Each year, we’ve had students place,” he said. “We had them place first, second and thrid the first year, and this year we had students place third and first.”
The expansions of STEM programs since his 2013 visit to the White House, Epps said, have helped participating students in all areas of academic achievement.
At L.J. Bell Elementary School, for one hour per month for the entire school year, 15 third-graders practice coding, and this prepares them for End of Grade Tests in reading. He said that by writing 10 or 15 meticulous lines of code, students learn to go back and target mistakes that prevented the execution of their programs — a skill needed for reading comprehension as well as programming.
“What’s really cool for me is that this community has just been great about embracing it,” he said. “We’ve had the schools, and now we have RCC and even the Rockingham Housing Authority has gotten involved. And that’s tremendous. When I go back on Dec. 5, I think my chest will reach D.C. before I do. I think I’m going to be one of the few champions who’s going to be able to come back and say, ‘You know what? I’ve got the support of my entire community behind me with this thing.’”
But returning to the White House, Epps said, is only the beginning of a new upswing in local STEM education.
“What I’m really excited about, extremely excited about, is the Saturday Academy we’re starting here at RCC,” he said. “It begins in January, and it’s going to be one Saturday a month. We’ve all agreed we’re going to have to feed them, and feed them well. But we’re going to expose them to the same things — emerging technologies, computer programming, 3-D design, 3-D printing. But what’s really, really cool about this is we’re going to start out with the Achilles’ heel of all high schools — Math I.”
Epps said his programs are designed to target students who are not proficient in the course.
“We’re going to bring them here on Saturdays and expose them to it, but differently, using computer programming and 3-D printing,” he explained. “We’ve teamed up with Richmond County Schools, and this is a joint project. We have a teacher, (Felix) Nagy-Lup, from the Ninth Grade Academy and his focus will be facilitating the learning of Math I, and we will bring in that technology and make it real and tangible for these students, so that when they go back into the classroom, math is going to be real for them. It won’t just be a concept drawn up on the board — it will be related to electricity or robotics, something they can tangibly see.”
He added that none of it would be possible without the close partnership between the school district and RCC.
“And we’re also looking for some industry donation for this camp,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of collaboration for the camp. The name of the camp is the RCC GREAT Academy, and great’s an acronym for ‘globally ready engineering and technology.’ That is a name that has been here ever since (Epps) and Chad (Osborne, of Richmond County Schools) have been putting it together.”
“What’s really great though, once again, is that it’s the community getting involved to truly make Richmond County a special learning place,” Epps said. “I truly believe that by keeping up this pace, this county’s going to return to it’s rightful place as the richest county in the state, as it once was in the early 1900s.”
He said those kinds of changes are only possible when people create an environment that allow them to materialize.
“You take our local lawmakers and our education leaders, Dr. (Dale) McInnis and Dr. (Cindy) Goodman, they are the Ledbetters and the J.P. Stevens of today,” Epps said. “But they’re not building fans. They’re producing workers and engineers, and I think soon, very soon, we’re going to be that place where companies are going to converge here , because we have that resource that we need — that innovative workforce that’s needed.”
For the Saturday Academy,Epps said he reached out to Ninth Grade Academy Prinicpal Toni Warrick, who emailed him the names of students who might benefit most from this new project.
“We limited it from 15 to 20 kids, because that’s a good, manageable number and you can get really intense with them,” Epps explained. “We asked for level ones and twos, the kids that have yet to pass Math I. But the level twos are right on the cusp. If we can get them over that one little hump, we know we can do great things with them. The level ones, sure, will take a little more work. But what Chad and I have realized over the last three years is that your level ones and twos are areas where you can get the most growth, and by exposing them to these technologies early and often, getting these students to level three or four is very easy to do. We’ve already seen it.”
Students are ranked as levels one through four based on their performance on standardized tests: levels three and four are passing, but one and two are failing.
“We don’t back down from a challenge,” he said. “We truly believe this is going to do wonders.”
The program is also affordable, Bell said.
“It is only costing $20 for all five camps,” she explained. “Not per camp. It’s all five camps, $20. We wanted to put a value on it, but we didn’t want to overprice it and make it unreachable for any groups. The Hackathon is the culmination. It’s three days, it’s a week-long camp, and that’s where all the skills they have learned in those five Saturdays will be put to the test. They’re going to have to design a solar racecar, and 3-D print the parts and assemble them. Then they’ll have to race them. And there will be prizes for the winner. We’re not releasing what the prizes are, but they’re going to be pretty exciting.”
Bell said that by teaching the students these skills at a young age, they will be better prepared to take classes at RCC when they are older.
“I’ve been in Richmond County Schools for the past 11 years,” Epps said. “But to walk this campus and see Richmond County School high school students enrolled in college before they even graduate high school, this is an exciting time.”
“And they don’t even have to pay for the classes,” Bell added. “That’s a good thing. If there’s anyone in business or industry who wants to sponsor the camp in any way, even just the food, if anyone wants to get involved I encourage them to call me. As Jeff said, there will be some fundraising for it, so we can continue it. We don’t want it just to be a one-time thing. This is an ongoing project.”
Epps said he has prepared a special “Thank you” for the community.
“If you go to www.jeffepps.com/thankyou, I created a special video just to thank everyone,” he said. “It’s my pleasure to go back to Washington, D.C., and say, ‘Yep, it’s that little ole’ county, just before you reach the South Carolina line, and we’re at it again.’”
Businesses and industries who are interested in sponsoring the Saturday Academy collaborative STEM education initiative can call 910-410-1826 or email email@example.com.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.