Teen teaches STEM skills to Y students

Online schools offer students a chance to tailor their time and create agendas that adapt to their speed of learning and the demands of other pursuits beyond the classroom. That’s precisely why Madison Kenney opted to enroll in the Georgia Connections Academy three years ago.

“Traditional high schools have very structured schedules, but through Georgia Connections, I can move at my own pace and get ahead in my lessons,” said the 15-year-old sophomore. “It’s more about what I want to do on any day.”

But Kenney’s ambitious schedule isn’t as capricious as it may sound. While working on her high school courses, she’s also taking classes at Gwinnett Technical College in Lawrenceville. She’s finishing up core classes in English and history, as well as several electives, that will put her on the path to earning an associate’s degree.

And when she’s not working on her own studies, she’s taken on the role of mentor and teacher to a team of young girls at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA in Atlanta. The RoboChicks robotics team grew out of an obsession Kenney has had since she was 8.

“It started when I was at a hands-on event at Georgia Tech where I programmed a Lego alligator to open and close its mouth,” she recalled. “From there I started attending programs at Tech almost every Saturday. I loved the creativity of STEM and robotics; there are so many ways to do one thing, and innovative ideas can be used in other ways for other subjects.”

In 2012, Kenney and a friend started working on robotics projects in her mom’s basement. Then a year ago, she heard the YMCA was looking to develop a STEM program. Kenney wrote a grant to pay for the team’s tool kits and supplies, and launched RoboChicks.

“I started with 25, and now it’s grown to 45,” she said. “We meet about twice a week, and we’ve entered two competitions. The goal of the program is to give them more hands-on experience than they’d have in school. We watch YouTube videos and look at instruction manuals to learn.”

That practical experience is something many students who attend the Y’s after-school programs don’t get, said Executive Director Gavin McGuire.

“The community I serve is underserved, so a lot of the kids don’t get the exposure to content from STEM or STEAM in a hands-on way,” he said. “This is a good way to empower the kids we work with.”

Kenney’s work with the RoboChicks has made a discernable difference, he added.

“This is the second year the team of elementary and middle schoolers has been competing against high school teams, yet some of these kids didn’t lean into math or science before,” he said. “Some had behavioral challenges, but since they’ve been engaged and involved, those incidents are decreasing. To see Madison’s passion and selflessness to help others is amazing, and she’s a good example for the young ladies and guys we service.”

Kenney’s work at the Y was recently honored by the Society of Women Engineers that presented her with an award for her community service and outreach. On March 19, she’ll receive a YOU (Youth Outgoing Uplifting) Award in recognition of her contributions to the community by leading the Y’s team.

Kenney graciously accepts the accolades but wants to keep the focus on her goal of becoming a mechatronics engineer and coaching her robotics team. And if that means giving up on sleep, she’s willing to do it.

“As one of my mentors says,” she said, “sleep is for the weak.”

Information about the robotics program at the Andrew and Walter Young Family YMCA is online at ymcaatlanta.org/ymca-locations/south-west-atlanta.

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