LOS ANGELES: In a room at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles, beyond a vast space where paintings and sculptures are displayed, around a dozen students gather at small tables.
Henry, 15, is hard at work developing a musical pedestrian crossing, using an innovative little device known as MESH that attaches to household objects and turns them into switches for various connected devices.
Henry and his classmates are taking part in STEAM learning – science, technology, engineering, art, and math – an innovative artistic twist on the more traditional STEM education.
The pupils from south LA, a relatively deprived part of the city, are spending the morning in this hothouse of learning, a partnership with education organisation Genesis to combat inequalities in arts and science education.
The youngsters have been given a whistlestop tour of the tools in the cutting edge lab — from the industrial grade laser cutter and 3D printer pens to the 3.4-metre interactive touch wall.
They are tasked with dreaming up inventions that will make everyday life more convenient and fun, inspired by such innovations as the playable musical staircases seen occasionally at metro stations.
“You have seven minutes,” Lauren Rodrigues, Genesis’s director of education, instructs the group, and the urgent murmur of focused teenagers spreads across the room as they rush to develop the next revolutionary recycling system, garbage collection robot, or some other innovation.
“We want to function as a start-up incubator. Go very quickly and collaborate, that’s the future,” says Sheri Schlesinger, who founded Genesis five years ago.
The non-profit aims to demystify the sciences by making them fun for children, including those from privileged backgrounds, would normally feel intimidated by the idea of Bunsen burners and complicated equations.
“Seventy percent of the jobs of the future, we haven’t invented yet, and STEAM is a critical component of innovative thinking,” says Schlesinger.
As automation increasingly does away with the need for unskilled human labor, Schlesinger warns that the days of washing dishes in a cafe or performing other menial chores to earn a living will soon be over.
Over the last 15 years, the US has been jolted out of its complacency on science education, with its youngsters falling far below the academic standards of Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Finnish, and Polish students.
The American system has been playing catch-up, introducing federally-funded programs while private schools across the board have been equipping themselves with workshops boasting industrial machinery and the latest in robotic gadgetry.
Around 500,000 children in the greater Los Angeles area live near or below the poverty line.
“One hundred percent of underserved kids have no access to a robust STEAM education. The opportunity this will provide for future jobs is staggering,” says Schlesinger.
The Marciano Art Foundation (MAF) was started up in 2012 by the Guess clothing company brothers Maurice and Paul Marciano.
Paul recently stepped down from the fashion brand without admitting any wrongdoing after settling with five sexual misconduct accusers.
Maurice took over the executive chairman role at Guess and it is he who runs MAF, the organization says, with Paul’s only role being as co-founder.
“We see so many artists today working with technology and science and sort of intermingling the two,” MAF deputy director Jamie Manne said.
“We really feel that’s the next sort of movement in art. So bringing up the science and mixing it with the art, I think you really get a better understanding of each subject by knowing more about the other.”
Genesis has given more than 4,000 children a grounding in computer coding, virtual reality, and electrical engineering in museums, private schools, after-class clubs, and even in a mobile lab.
More than 800 children have been through the Marciano foundation lab since the collaboration was launched six months ago.
Clea, watching her programmable mini robot make its way along a line drawn by marker pen, is in her creative zone.
“I’ve had a lot of ideas like this before, like a crosswalk that would flash different colours, or street light that would give more light when someone walks by,” she enthuses.