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Science, Technology, Robotics, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics (STREAM) for early learners [Podcast]

The week on The Preschool Podcast, we are honored to welcome Shawn D. Byrd, Founder and Executive Director of the SYMI Academy. Shawn is also our 2021 Early Childhood Educator of the Year and he joins us for our 300th podcast episode!! Shawn decided to champion the cause of community youth after witnessing years of violence and conflict and its’ direct effect on the lives of the community’s greatest hope and most vital resource; young people. Over the past two decades, Shawn has been a dedicated Mentor, Counselor, Coach, and Program Director.

Shawn’s approach to educating

Shawn started the SYMI academy to introduce scholars to jobs of the future. A lot of young scholars in urban cities do not embrace math, science, and technology. By exposing them to it at an early age, they are able to play with it, conceptualize it and start learning earlier. They can apply it to their everyday life. Then, by the time they are in their teens, it is second nature.

Shawn believes in encouraging and challenging children towards greatness. If they come back to a project, that is a very positive sign that they want to do it more. He is all about an age-appropriate approach. You do not want to interrupt what a scholar is currently engaged in. We have to be flexible. It can take some children longer to learn a skill and we should be happy to be patient. Go at the pace of the scholar.

Small wins lead to great victory

Shawn D. Byrd

Shawn’s approach to mentorship

Shawn believes in being a great listener before we approach advice or a solution. Hearing someone vent, they can often come up with their own answers in the process. Walk them through it. Help them navigate the solution they came up with. Early childhood education is not a profession where anyone pats you on the back. Helping another colleague build confidence is critical. You can walk out drained on a good day, children can take so much of your energy.

Venting to someone who can entrust that information is very important in this profession. We all need that crutch.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn BYRD:

It’s about the scholar. Give them time. It’s like planning a flower: it doesn’t grow overnight. One side of the flower may grow quicker than the other side. But you wait some time, it’s all even in a year or two. So, just be a little patient at the end of the day.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Shawn, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

BYRD:

Thank you, thank you for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re very excited to have on the show with us today, Shawn D. Byrd. He joins us from Bridgeport, Connecticut. He’s the founder and executive director of the SYMI [STEAMulating young Minds Imagination] Academy, and he is also the winner of HiMama’s latest Early Childhood Educator of the Year Award, which is really exciting. Big kudos to you, Shawn. Very excited to learn more about what you’re up to and share all the amazing things about SYMI Academy and your work with our Preschool Podcast audience here. Let’s start off learning about the why. Why did you start the SYMI Academy?

BYRD:

I started the SYMI Academy… and let me explain, the SYMI Academy is an acronym. SYMI stands for STEAMulating Young Minds Imagination. And that’s “STEAM”, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. My goal is, and always will be, to introduce scholars to the jobs of the future. And so a lot of young scholars in urban cities and in the area do not embrace mathematics in the sciences and technologies, as most other scholars do.

And so exposing them to that at an early age, they are able to play with it, understand it and conceptualize it and kind of apply it to the day-to-day life. And so when the opportunity comes to coding, when it comes to robotics, when it comes to 3D printing, it’s all fun but they learn at the same time. And so if I can get a scholar to embrace that [at ages] zero to five, and through from three through nine, by the time they are 16, it’s second nature. Versus trying to teach a 16-year-old how to swim at 16, you have 16 years of fear in them. And so I want to really get them to embrace so early that it’s second nature as we move forward in life.

RON

Yeah, that’s interesting. So, do you think that is kind of the key to it, which is just getting them comfortable, having them be loving engineering or technology or math, versus being afraid of it? And certainly, I recall growing up, too, math always seemed to be the subject that most kids really just dreaded, that math class.

BYRD:

Agreed. I mean, when you say “math”, there’s a kind of anxiety [that] comes over you. And so when you doing that at an early age, it’s second nature and you have a lot of success. I believe in small victories, small wins, leading to great victories. And so that scholar now is feeling good about themselves. They have the self-esteem is at a great level. And you just kind of keep encouraging them and challenging them for greatness.

RON

Yeah, I really like that. And it’s actually really timely from a conversation I was just having with somebody from Scholastic who had had a very similar view about reading and it being, sure, part of it’s the mechanics of being able to read. But the other part is just having a love for reading. And when you see books, it’s something that brings you joy, versus dread. So, I think that makes a ton of sense, actually, and can be super impactful, I’m sure. So, I would love to hear a little bit more about how you’re doing that at the SYMI Academy.

BYRD:

We have our curriculum. It’s a Montesorri curriculum and it’s all STEAM-based. So, we introduce scholars…. for instance, we did a project Tuesday, I believe it was. So, the preschool ages are from two through five. So, the project was, they’re going to look at a diagram, tell you the shapes, count the numbers of the shapes, the colors of those shapes, and then they’re going to build something out of that. So, you’re talking about math, you’re talking about shapes, you’re talking about colours, you’re talking about engineering.

And so they can build anything they want. But it was fun. So, we’ve addressed so many different opportunities. Again, the numbers, the colors, the shapes and their creativity as they build. So, it was fun. So now, here it is Friday, they’re asking, “Can we do it again today?” Which is a beautiful thing. So, I take it, it was successful. And they took heed to it and they felt comfortable and built their confidence as they’ve done it and want to do it again. At this age, their attention span is very low. If you keep them for a couple of minutes, you’re great. But if we’re coming back and want to revisit a project, an opportunity they’ve done, I think that is a major win for what we’re doing.

RON

Yeah, absolutely. That’s a very positive sign in that age group when children want to do something again. It’s a really good signal. But I have no doubt that different children behave and react differently to the different types of activities that you’re doing, in relation to technology, engineering, science and math and these things. Which begs the question about how do you adapt for different children’s individual needs in in your academy? And that being somewhat of a challenge, I think that early years program faces.

BYRD:

Well, let’s be truthful here. Everyone has a good day and some have bad days. And some days are challenging. So, it’s all about [an] age-appropriate approach to the scholar. And if he or she is not really active or want to be active, they’ll do something to decide [something similar what the teachers are doing] but not directly, because we don’t want to interrupt the scholars who are really engaged at that moment.

So, we have to be very flexible in how we approach the scholars because everyone learns at a different level, a different speed. So, we can’t force feed the scholar to learn at the same level as everyone else. So, it may take a scholar a little longer to get the concept of what we’re doing, so we have to be patient.

And that’s where the Montesorri curriculum comes in. And so we go at the pace of the scholar and then we’ll revisit when they kind of comprehend a little more and retain more. And then their behavior is on the better side than it was on that day or that moment. So, flexibility is very, very important to have this success. In any preschool, in any activity you’re doing, the flexibility and the scholars you’re dealing with, you can’t take it personal. You’ve got to just kind of lay it out and see how he or she adapts as you move forward.

RON

Yeah, I think that point about flexibility is a really great one. I know I’ve been torn myself sometimes about having my four-year-old do a certain activity kicking and screaming or just to be flexible and say, “You know what? If I do that, then he’s just really not going to enjoy it and he’s never going to want to do it again,” is kind of the thinking, I guess, isn’t it?

BYRD:

I’ll give you a tidbit: your rules don’t change, the rules stay the same. But your approach, your actions and your discovery, you have to be flexible with it with that scholar. You don’t change the rules. Don’t bend the rules because you want everyone to be consistent with the rules and regulations and the expectations you have of them. But your approach may be different for each scholar to get it done.

RON

Yeah, I like that thinking. Yeah, and that way, you kind of stay true to your philosophy and your approach. But yeah, you’re flexible in how you apply that for each individual child. It’s a good philosophy. Shawn, you also have had the opportunity to be somewhat of a mentor for some folks. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Any stories that you might be able to share, in terms of some of your experiences being a mentor in the education space, as well?

BYRD:

Absolutely. First and foremost, I believe being a great listener before we approach and give any advice or solution. Because sometimes just hearing someone vent and explaining what their challenges are or their lack of success they may think it is, at that moment. They kind of give their own answers in their conversation and just kind of reiterate what you talked about. Understand what they’re looking for in the outcome and walk them through it.

All I can do is give advice. It’s like eating fish: you eat the meat, throw away the bones. Some of that meat you may not need right now. You may kind of put it on the back burner and utilize it later. And I have no problems inviting certain individuals who ask questions and want to be mentored to come in and see our approach. And I’m going to see their approach and share those best practices. And I allow individuals to come up with their own solutions. And I kind of market and promote it and help them navigate through that solution they came up with.

What I don’t want to do is be a dictator or “I know it all,” because that’s not the way of approach. And I learn from others as well. So, it’s a win-win. I may be doing something I think I’m doing well. They may be doing it awesome. And we can share those ideals and vice versa. And I think that becomes a more of a team effort, a co-branding relationship. It’s not one-sided.

RON

And have you ever seen any educators in your programs or elsewhere where this approach has seen them develop into a strong leader, or potentially even a mentor themselves, over time?

BYRD:

Absolutely. Because I think when we started off before the podcast started, this is not a profession that everyone pats you on the back. When something’s wrong, it blows up in your face. Everyone wants to talk about the negative thing that happened that day. But when everything’s going well, you don’t get the balloons or the cake and the hoopla at the end of the day.

So, helping another colleague build their confidence, standing firm of what they believe in and their approach is very critical because you can walk out of here very depleted on a good day, just drained. And scholars have energy. And if you can’t keep with that energy, you may run away, run somewhere and hide. But if you can bounce great ideals and have some dialog, or just vent to someone that can entrust that information, is very, very important in this profession. Because we all need that crutch at times, just that individual that can will you over for that moment that you have, that you need “Woo, son!” moment or when you’re having some great things and just encourage you to continue to do what you’re doing.

RON

Yeah, so important. And such a good point, too, because I know early-childhood educators love to see their children grow and develop over time. But it’s a journey and it’s a process. It’s not like if you’re in sales and you close a sales deal, you have that immediate gratification or feeling a win. Whereas in early-childhood, it’s a tough job and you don’t get that immediate satisfaction or gratification in the same way.

BYRD:

Correct. I mean, this is a challenge with some of the parents. A parent may see one scholar doing something, another scholar has an approach or accomplished that quite as yet. And it’s like, “Why is my scholar not doing this and that scholar can do this?” And so that teacher or parent is like, everyone wants their child, their scholar, to be a superstar. And that’s what you should, as a parent. But there’s levels, to get to that level.

And so we have to kind of have a chance with the parents, a chance with the scholars themselves, a chance with the staff. So, it’s a lot of managing. But at the end of the day, it’s about the outcome of the scholar that you’re servicing. And so we have to explain to adults, it’s about the scholar. Give them time. It’s like planting a flower – it doesn’t grow overnight. One side of the flower may grow quicker than the other side. But you wait some time, it’s all even in a year or two. So, it’s just be a little patient at the end of the day.

RON

Yeah, that’s a good analogy, for sure. And you mentioned earlier listening being such an important part of being a mentor. And also being willing to learn yourself. So, question for you: Have you ever had a mentor yourself or somebody who really influenced you in your thinking and your approach to the way you’re doing things at the SYMI Academy?

BYRD:

I have several mentors. My board of directors, they are very active. They come in, they evaluate, just not from a business perspective but from a family perspective. They all have children who are of age and some of them have grandchildren. So, I give feedback: “Take yourself out of the equation of being part of the SYMI Academy. And just being a parent or grandparent, what can we do better? What would you like to see from that perspective?”

And even some of my colleagues, I’m asking questions: “How can we be better? How can we co-exist? How can we co-brand? How can we collaborate?” Because I offer technology here. So, I’m definitely willing to share that information with other scholars, families, who come in on our Saturday academy, come in after after-care. It’s about sharing the resources because some scholars don’t have access to those resources, as well as some of my colleagues don’t have access or the space to accommodate those type of resources.

So, I think by sharing, it’s very key because it’s about servicing the scholars in our community. It’s not about who’s better than who. We have to get away from that ego. And keep in mind, our common goal is development and the encouragement and the promotion of our scholars to become productive citizens as they matriculate in life.

RON

Yeah, such a good point. And I mentioned when I introduced you earlier that you’re also the winner of HiMama’s Early Childhood Educator of the Year award. How did it feel to win that?

BYRD:

It feels great to be honored and recognized by your colleagues and the parents that you service. They all went out and voted. I feel on top of the world and that’s the pat on the back I got. And I received it and I love it. And it just motivated me to continue to do what I do. My background is in software sales and marketing. I worked on Wall Street for 25 years. And I just took a leap of faith and walked away from everything.

And I started a nonprofit organization because I had a passion and a desire to really get scholars to embrace STEAM. Not everyone says “STEAM”, I say “STEAM” because I add the Arts. Because I sold the technology before it hit the market. I instilled it and it did well for me. And I just felt that if I can get scholars earlier than I ever got exposed to it, I think they can really develop a career path, versus going out and seeking jobs as they get older.

RON

Yeah, I love that. And also, yeah, just having that really pragmatic outlook, in terms of what the career opportunities are going to be. I mean, wow, we’ve even really just felt that transition through the pandemic in the talent market. And technology being such a critical role currently and certainly in the lives of the children that are in early years programs today. So, jobs like software engineering and other roles in science and technology and robotics will surely be very much in demand in the future.

BYRD:

Agreed. I’ll give you a scenario, I’ll tell my age somewhat here. Driving on the I-95, going south, your parents will give you the change to throw into the little basket before the toll lift will raise up. Or if you sit in the back seat, they’ll hand you the dollar, you give it to the clerk, they give you the change, you feel on top of the world while you’re going  south down the I-95.

But now you go down ‘95, you have E-ZPass [digital toll system]. Someone had to build the box for the E-ZPass – that’s engineer. Someone had to program the box and the technology in the box – that’s coding. Someone had to build the infrastructure so we can read the E-ZPass, associate it with the vehicle that’s driving and take the money out of your bank account and then make sure your account is properly assessed as you drive down ‘95. That is totally science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And then a lot of individuals claim that manual jobs are going away and robots are taking them. Okay, someone had to program, build and maintain and manage the robots. Those are jobs, which you’re not embracing the technology now. It’s going to be a very challenging for you to be either considered for these career opportunities as you matriculate in life.

So, at an early age, you’re doing robotics after school, during school, on Saturday or a summer camp. You’re doing coding. You’re winning math challenges. You’re learning chess, how to think outside the box. So now, when these opportunities come in life, you’re very astute and you feel very well of yourself to compete. And at the end of the day, that’s what I want scholars to do – be able to compete and let the chips fall where they may.

RON

Yeah, it’s a great example. And I recall a conversation I had on the Preschool Podcast before where somebody positioned it, I think quite adeptly, of we have a responsibility as people who are working with children in early-childhood education to prepare them for the future that they’re going to be living in. And certainly, you’re doing a great job of that, Shawn, with the SYMI Academy and really creating that love for science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts and mathematics.

So, great job and continue the great work there and great to see you winning that Early Childhood Educator of the Year award. Like you said, there’s not too many pats on the back in early education. So, glad to see that. And also an opportunity to shout out everybody in the audience who’s been working so hard in your roles and thank you for your work. And don’t forget to thank your colleagues and the folks that you work with, as well, because it’s certainly a challenging role with not a lot of recognition. But it is well deserved.

BYRD:

Indeed, indeed. And my barometer is to scholars, when I walk through the door and they call me Mr. Byrd or Coach Byrd and giving me a hug, my day is filled with joy. It’s priceless, that moment, that feeling. So, that’s what keeps me motivated, is the scholars. I can deal with the parents; I can deal with the business side of it – the writing grants, dealing with city hall, dealing with the community. But at the end of the day, I’m doing this for the scholars. And they are my barometer.

RON

I love it, great message. And Shawn, one of the things we’re trying to encourage on the Preschool Podcast is everybody’s continued learning and development. Any resources you might be able to share with our audience that you think would be good for them to check out as they continue to grow and learn in their roles?

BYRD:

Absolutely. First and foremost, speak to your local schools, your board of education, see what they’re doing and see what their model is. See what their business plan is. Because you want to be aligned with the local community, that’s very important. So, if you can attend a teacher-parents conference, go. If you can attend the board meeting for the board of education, go.

And then other resources, I’m very heavy on scholastic, reading on that, understanding. I do research through NSBE [National Society of Black Engineers] and NSBE Jr. to understand the technology. And I go to workshops and go to conventions just to see think outside the box. So, you want to do things locally; you want to do things regionally. You want to look into resources globally and bring that back and see how it fits into your curriculum and see where the future is going so you’re part of it, you’re part of the change.

And that goes back to my days on Wall Street. I sold technology for computer associates. So, my research is a little more in-depth when it comes to technology. But you don’t have to be that in-depth. Just find out and understand some of the vision, the plans and how things are changing. Just be part of it and understand it. And one thing you can never go wrong with: if you don’t understand something, Google it, go to YouTube and someone will be explaining to you, one way or another. On that, you will understand, able to comprehend and apply it to your curriculum as you move forward.

RON

Yeah, that’s great advice. And certainly even it resonates with me. I know sometimes you get really caught in the whirlwind and the day-to-day, and it can be a bit draining. And it’s sometimes nice to kind of step away from that and go to a conference or check out a resource or do some reading that necessarily isn’t something you’re going to apply in your job the next day.

BYRD:

Correct.

RON

Yeah, I can just kind of get your mind in a bit of a different space for a bit, is kind of nice.

BYRD:

Well, keep this in mind: The technology we’re using today was developed 5 to 10 years ago.

RON

Absolutely, that’s absolutely true.

BYRD:

Yeah. See, people think it came out yesterday. No, it was developed, it was engineered 3 to 10 years ago. It’s just being introduced to us so that we can utilize it.

RON

That’s right. Yeah, that’s right, only just finding the commercial application recently. Yeah, totally. Last but not least, Shawn, where can our listeners go to find out more about the SYMI Academy or get in touch with you?

BYRD:

Yes, the SYMI Academy, our website is www.SYMIProject.org. And we have a plethora of information there on the website. If they want to speak to me directly, I have no problem sharing my cell number. And that number is 203-535-4829. And Shawn D. Byrd at the SYMI Academy.

RON

There you go, you have Shawn’s direct line. Or you can also check out the SYMI Project at the www.SYMIProject.org. Shawn, thanks so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!

BYRD:

Ron, I appreciate the opportunity. And God bless you, have a great day!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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