A mom’s personal parenting journey serves as the foundation for rethinking early learning.
By Rachel O. Williams
Chief Operating Officer, The Honey Bee Company LLC
Co Founder and Chief Mom, Paige & Paxton
Paige & Paxton were born out of my love for my children and a desire to do what was best for them. As a young mother with two little girls of color, I looked for ways to give them an edge. Not necessarily in the competitive sense but to give them the power to chart their own destiny. I determined that math and science proficiency was a way to accomplish this goal. At the time, there was no national STEM movement, and there was certainly no “push” to get girls interested in math and science. But something deep inside told me that the way to ensure their future was to make sure that they were really good at math and science. Undoubtedly, some of it was my belief that our primary responsibility as parents is to make sure that our children are smarter than we are—if they’re not, we’ve failed. As I looked at my own educational experience, I realized that there was a huge gap when it came to math and science. Part of the reason for this gap was that the bar was set really low for girls in these fields. When I was in school, people still thought that girls were good at English and literature and boys were good at math and that was just the way it was.
So, I made a concerted effort to buck the conventional wisdom. Like many parents, I was constantly experimenting with new approaches and new ideas. But a lot of the available educational experiences in math and science were, well, boring. So I started using these two puzzle piece characters that I created for a business venture to make the complicated concepts more interesting through storytelling.
The hardest part for me is that I had something in common with the majority of elementary teachers in this country. I didn’t have a STEM degree or a STEM background, and the research that was much harder back then. It meant trips back and forth to the library rather than the luxury of typing topics into a search engine. I researched math and science concepts and then added my strengths: 1) the ability to communicate complex concepts to general audiences and 2) storytelling through the eyes of the puzzle piece characters. This approach not only made the math and science more interesting but also more relevant—for me as well. In the process, I stumbled across what is considered best practices in elementary STEM today: early exposure with an emphasis on accuracy and relevance.
Was it working? Honestly, I didn’t know until more than two decades later. This is what keeps a lot of parents awake at night. You really don’t know until much later when you’re either kicking yourself or patting yourself on the back. For me, it was 2011, although I didn’t make the connection at the time. But something truly amazing had happened. My youngest daughter, Jessica, was completing a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. She not only excelled at science, she was passionate about it. Her passion led her to become actively involved in youth pipelining programs aimed at generating interest in science among girls.
My oldest daughter, Kelley, was the math whiz and a self-described tech geek. She was working for American Express in Manhattan and leading national pipelining initiatives that introduced girls to the field of technology. In fact, she was one of the founding members of the New York Chapter of Black Girls Code. Both my daughters had carved out success in STEM and were sharing their knowledge with a new generation of children. You could say the pieces were falling into place.
Both daughters said their work was meaningful, but realized that middle and high school was too late. By that time, children have already formed conceptions about who they are and what they can—but more poignantly, what they cannot be. Kelley was home for the holidays going through some boxes in the basement when she came across those dorky puzzle piece characters that I had used when they were children. She suggested that we bring the characters back to life and build an elementary STEM initiative with the characters at the core. It was the stupidest idea that I had heard to date.
But she was on to something...and so was the rest of the country. It was the realization that our children are behind the rest of the world when it comes to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and if we are to maintain our economic competitiveness in a global economy, we must start earlier—much earlier.
Kelley’s idea was to use my “methodology” to engage our youngest children around concepts and careers in STEM. She asserted that my training as a journalist made me a generalist and that early elementary teachers are necessarily generalists. The same approach, she argued, that worked for them (Kelley and Jessica) would work for all children. So then the real work started. We worked remotely for more than a year, refreshing the puzzle siblings, developing a host of adorable STEM-proficient, STEM-loving cohorts and creating the perfect backdrop, an eclectic island that celebrates individuality, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. Then we added a hands-on, project-based component, aligned with Next Generation Science Standards and developed with the input of STEM professionals who shared their views on what worked for them and what would have facilitated their STEM pathway. In 2013, we secured our first client, Chicago Public Schools.
In a leap of faith, Kelley resigned her position as Assistant Vice President of JP Morgan Chase and moved home to Chicago to lead the charge. Now here we are. Kelley is my CEO and co-founder of Paige & Paxton. Jessica is a third year dental student, our science consultant, and contributing author. Patti and Patrick Puzzle (Paige & Paxton 1.0) changed the trajectory of my daughters. Together we’re on a mission to engage a new generation of little learners in STEM to change the course of a nation.
I never imagined that those two rudimentary boxy puzzle piece characters would evolve into content and curriculum that is changing the face of elementary STEM education in terms of how we teach STEM and what we believe our youngest children are capable of. Back then STEM was a “nice to have.” Now it’s a must have. So my commitment to the cause is even greater.
It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it? This whole concept grew out of my love for my children and a desire to do what was best for them. It worked, and now I’m motivated by a deep desire to do what’s best for all our children.
And yes, periodically, I do pat myself on the back.