It’s a warm July morning, but the Horizons at CA Fourth Grade students don’t seem to notice. Following the directions of Lead Teacher Veronica Cruz and Assistant Teacher Piper Bittman ’16, they are busy creating “hoop airplanes” and engaging in a friendly competition to see how far their planes will fly. To the students, it feels like they are playing with a new toy, but they are actually having a lesson in aerodynamics, with a little physics thrown in for good measure.
Students move out of the classroom on to CA’s campus, and new discoveries follow. “The best way to make your airplane fly is to move outside!” exclaims Jesus Balderrama.
“They are learning the beginning steps of becoming a scientist—create a hypothesis and do an experiment,” Bittman says. “This is great, because all the studies show that the earlier children are introduced to STEM, the more apt they are to incorporate it into their career paths.”
For more than 20 years, Horizons has brought underserved children from the community—Pre-Kindergarten through high school—to the Colorado Academy campus for a robust enrichment program that focuses on the development of the whole child during the summer, as well as year-round programming. In summer 2020, the Horizons curriculum was augmented by a “Genius Box,” which was the source of the hoop airplanes. The Genius Box is the brainchild of CA alumni parent Toi Massey, and she was delighted to have the opportunity to enhance the Horizons curriculum with STEM-related activities.
“These students have been doing engineering and science all their lives, whether they know it or not,” Massey says. “If they build with LEGOs, sand castles, or blocks, they are engineers. In the kitchen, they are doing math and chemistry. If they turn up the heat on the stove, they are thermal dynamic heat transfer experts!”
‘I have to go get them’
Massey is the mother of recent CA graduate Kennedy Massey ’20. She remembers taking Kennedy to her alma mater, Howard University, when she was a three-year-old and photographing her in front of the Engineering building. Now, Kennedy will follow in her mother’s footsteps and begin at Howard this fall. Toi Massey earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics and a master’s in Nuclear and Mechanical Engineering, which led to a long and distinguished corporate career.
Massey’s job with Raytheon Technologies brought her to Denver for what she thought would be a one–year assignment in 2008. One year turned into 12 years. In 2011, she accepted a new position as Executive Director of Business Process Innovation and Customer Experience at Level 3 Communications, managing teams on three continents. She describes her job as “creating measurable, repeatable, and sustainable processes.” Alternatively, she explains what she did with a favorite family saying: “If you don’t have time to do it right, you will find time to do it again.”
At Level 3, Massey looked around and saw a familiar scene. “I was the only Senior Executive of color on the campus,” she says. “I realized that, if I want to have girls in these positions, I have to go get them.”
Changing the face of technology
Massey began her STEM initiative around the kitchen table in 2010. She named the nonprofit JEKL, using the names of her daughter, niece, and nephews (John, Eric, Kennedy, Lauren). The name honored the family’s multi-generational commitment to service and education—Kennedy is a fifth–generation college student.
“Her grandmother has always said, ‘In the end, it will only matter what you have done for others,’” Massey says. “The mission of JEKL was to embrace the uninitiated child and change the face of technology forever.”
In 2012, Massey left corporate America, and within two years, launched her first STEM program with Girl Scouts of Colorado and watched it “take off.” Since the program’s inception, JEKL has served more than 5,000 students, including children in West Africa.
When students run up to embrace Massey, she greets them by calling them “doctor.” She is sending a message to them about equity in STEM. “I’m planting the seed with them,” she says. “They say ‘Oh, I could be a doctor!’ I hope they will remember me calling them doctor and believe they can be anything they want.”
Science, technology, engineering, and math
With remote learning in place due to COVID-19 restrictions, the “Genius Boxes” turned into “Genius Backpacks” and traveled home with Horizons students. In addition to the hoop airplanes, students discovered they had the ingredients to make slime, a spectroscope, a Morse code harmonica, and Oobleck, made famous by Dr. Seuss and loved by Horizons Fourth Grade student Paola Hernandez.
“Oobleck shows you the difference between solid and liquid,” Paola says. “And it’s fun to do with your hands!”
“From Kindergarten through Grade Eight, our students and teachers loved the lesson plans and activities that came with the Genius Boxes,” says Horizons at CA Executive Director Daniela Meltzer. “They were age-appropriate experiences that got students super excited about STEM.”
After Meltzer mentioned the Genius Boxes to the national Horizons organization, Massey and her team found themselves working around the clock to fulfill an order for 1,000 more Genius Boxes to be shipped to Horizons affiliates throughout the country. Thanks to Massey, a CA parent who is passionate about the future of the next generation, and Melzer, a local Horizons leader who spread the word, Horizons students across the country could fly their hoop airplanes and themselves into the future, better equipped to conquer science, technology, engineering, and math.