Full STE(A)M Ahead

Innovative education on wheels.

Any given day on the streets of Atlanta, a fleet of bright green trucks and trailers pull into public school parking lots, ready for another day of class. These mobile makerspaces bring scientists and scroll saws, artists and equipment, ideas, purpose, and the utmost possibility. The convoy is known as STE(A)M Truck, a nonprofit organization that proves you can put anything on a truck, even a classroom. And behind the wheel you’ll often find Melanie Tumlin, MS ’09, bringing imaginative projects and a Triton spirit to students all across the city.

Originally from Atlanta herself, Tumlin came to UC San Diego in 2007 because of its renowned cognitive science program. “UCSD is really the premier program for cognitive science,” she says. “I was completely enchanted and knew that was where I needed to go.” With plans to become an educator, Tumlin first prepared by working as a teacher’s assistant, conducting research on language and cognitive development with professors Marta Kutas and Sarah Creel.

No stranger to nomadism, Tumlin took on all kinds of roles after graduating.
“It was definitely a meandering path for me,” she says, recounting adventures that varied from market research and data analysis to a transformative position building tiny houses. “It absolutely inspired my passion for working with my hands, and teaching others to do the same,” she says.

These varied interests and experiences would eventually coalesce with STE(A)M Truck. Founded in 2014 by former kindergarten teacher Jason Martin, the nascent organization was an uncanny fit for Tumlin. Her role would entail data analysis and research, designing a curriculum of hands-on projects, educating students, and assessing the program’s impact on cognitive development, all of which she explored at stages along her career path. “It was the perfect intersection of everything I’d ever done or ever cared about.”

Alongside a team of 22 people, Tumlin works with students ages three to 18 from low-income schools that are often lacking in STEM and art programs. The fleet of six vehicles provides a wide array of hands-on curricula, with short projects like creating stop-motion animation films or designing and building a clubhouse, to long-term endeavors like the weather balloon Big Build, in which students build and operate their own weather stations. The STE(A)M Truck’s team of educators, scientists and artists also work with schoolteachers to bring innovative activities into their day-to-day lessons. “Our vision is to bring resources to places that don’t otherwise have them, and build up those locations and empower them so that the experience we bring still remains when we drive away,” Tumlin says.

As program director, Tumlin works side by side with students to see firsthand what kind of projects and teaching methods work best for kids. “Our approach is to transform teaching and learning,” she says. “There are so many different ways to teach kids, and the traditional desks-in-a- row classroom model isn’t always the best.” The STE(A)M Truck team designs programs based on research that shows that hands-on learning, as opposed to lecture learning alone, gives students the skills needed for long-term success.

So far, the results are promising: 78.6 percent of students who participated in STE(A)M Truck programming show an improvement in applied STEM skills, while 88.5 percent of students show improved noncognitive skills—aspects of social and emotional learning like perseverance, self-management, social awareness and optimism. “These are really strong predictors of success in young adulthood in terms of educational attainment and employment,” Tumlin says. “We’re very intentional in our program design about fostering those social and emotional skills.”

The research and analysis skills so vital to her current line of work are ones Tumlin developed at UC San Diego. “UCSD was huge for me,” she says, noting professor Joan Stiles’ course on neurological development and cognitive change in kids. “That class in particular really shaped my perspective about how humans learn and how brains develop, and just how much nature and nurture play into who we are as people.”

In the future, Tumlin hopes to see STE(A)M Truck’s model replicated in other parts of the country. “We believe that every city and every rural district needs some sort of STE(A)M Truck that connects kids with tools, technology and local talent—people who can really showcase these careers.”

Wherever the trucks are, Tumlin hopes they will create lifelong learners who are hungry to see what they can do in the world. “What excites me is showing students that they have a voice in their own education,” she says. “How we learn doesn’t influence educational policy at all, but it should. And if we can find a way to take what we know about development and marry it with pedagogy and educational policy, that seems like it would be the best possible outcome for the largest number of people.”