When Lola Wright registered her 11-year-old daughter Caroline in Heph Ed Incredicamp — a two-week STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art and math] curriculum offered this past summer as part of District 97’s summer programming — the incoming Julian middle-schooler was initially reluctant.
“She started out skeptical because I had signed her up for it without any information,” Wright said. “She ended up being really surprised and super-inspired by the experience. It was virtual, but they did an incredible job of making it interactive. It had the benefit of modern technology and innovation with the high level of engagement that project-based learning provides.”
“We had these kits we could assemble that helped us learn about different things, different facts about things like harnessing energy, and hydro and wind power,” said Caroline.
Makesha Benson, co-president of the Oak Park Diversity Council, whose 10-year-old daughter Lucy participated in the Heph Ed summer program, said the Conners have “cracked the code in bringing kids creative, smart ways to learn that are engaging.
“They’ve been able to transcend traditional learning and engage students in ways that are super-fun,” Benson said, adding that Lucy also got to know and engage with kids across D97 through the program.
Her daughter has ADHD and struggles with traditional learning, but the Heph Ed program taught her executive functioning skills. Benson lauded the program’s ability to engage the most vulnerable students.
“Through my work in the community as an equity advocate, I know some of the struggles kids can have and I believe they’ve figured out how to engage students in ways that I don’t think traditional education can,” she said. “We have to engage them in ways that are more personal and that fascinates and interests them.”
Heph Ed Incredicamp was founded by Steve Conner and his wife Sheila Conner roughly six years ago to address a growing problem in the United States — young people have been avoiding careers in science, engineering, technology and math.
“We realized that, somewhere around the seventh to the 10th grades, there’s a massive fall-off [in interest] because kids find STEM boring,” said Steve, 58. “They certainly use technology quite a bit — we’re really big on consuming these things — but in terms of going into the field and building things ourselves? Not so much.”
According to the National Foundation for American Policy, roughly eight in 10 graduate students in the U.S. attending school full-time in electrical engineering, computer science and industrial engineering are foreign nationals.
“A lot of our kids weren’t necessarily going into STEM or STEAM, and that was really concerning,” Steve said.
The Conners recognized that something simple was missing from STEAM education in America — pure fun.
“The crux of the matter is, this is boring stuff, at least the way it’s taught,” Steve said.
So the couple, who once owned a film production company in New York before moving to Oak Park in 2004, set out to make hard subjects like math and science entertaining.
Young people learn about distance, speed and force by playing football. High school students are taught immunology through a video game. Middle-schoolers learn engineering concepts through online conversations with an expert who leads a team of engineers building Formula One race cars.
The engagement may very well be the future of remote learning, and Oak Park residents could be in the vanguard of that pedagogical shift, the couple believes.
“Our neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods are the microcosm of the U.S.,” Steve said. “If we can accomplish this here, we can be a model for the rest of the country.”
The Conners said that before the pandemic, they would facilitate their unique curricula within schools in districts 97 and 200, and during popup venues, such as the popup coding shop that materialized in the Hemingway District last year.
“Now, because of COVID-19, we are 100 percent virtual, but we also incorporate off-screen time, so the kids have challenges and scavenger hunts that they have to do that take them off screen,” said Sheila, 57.
The Conners said Heph Ed Incrediverse has four employees on staff, with about 15 people on board for the summer camp they facilitated in partnership with D97. Many of those employees, they said, conduct online courses from all over the world.
They said their New York film production and marketing businesses were models for how they currently operate Heph Ed.
“When we were running our other businesses, we were early adapters of off-site employees,” Steve said. “One of our lead designers lives in a van powered by the sun, and it’s filled with computer equipment. He’s physically out and about beside some lake or mountainous area and that’s how he’s working. So we found for the last 15 years that having a virtual work environment is really advantageous.”
The Conners said those early businesses also formed the basis for their approach to adapting technology to their needs.
“Think about all the technology that goes into visual effects and what happens inside film production,” Steve said. “Back in New York, we had a company of about 15 employees. We had a room filled with 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds building computers. We were engineers out of necessity and because of that, we pretty much wound up building everything from computers to video games.”
“Our motto is, ‘Can we build it in the basement?'” Sheila said.
It’s a fitting motto, considering the “Heph” in Ed comes from Hephaestus, the Greek god of tools and weapons. The Conners said they want to make learning about technology frictionless — even if it means creating their own custom-made computers.
The couple said they’re in conversations with D97 administrators about fall programming and are also working with families who are forming what are called pandemic learning pods, or small groups of students who go through online learning together, similar to an in-person classroom, but only remotely. The Conners said they’ve had discussions with eight pods in the area.
And the demand for Heph Ed could become even more intense as remote learning becomes part of the new pandemic norm in education.
“The key for us is how we can create curious mindsets and growth mindsets,” Steve said. “This is a new pedagogy that unlocks their mindsets and suspends their disbelief. We play around with technology and experiment with chemistry and read graphic novels, [and students] come out on the other side believing they are engineers and chemists and scientists.”