Posted by Dr. Honora Norton
When in-person volunteering was eliminated at Auxier, Rotary Club of Sun Lakes member Maureen Alger found a way to quickly adapt the SAE A World In Motion® (AWIM®) Rolling Things STEM challenge to incorporate outside perspectives. Industry volunteers are crucial for young learners participating in AWIM’s PreK-8 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) experiences. They provide mentorship, real-world insights, and expose students to different STEM career paths. During the pandemic, they also provided something else—social interaction with someone other than a teacher.
SAE International, previously known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, is a U.S.-based, globally active professional association and standards developing organization for engineering professionals in various industries. The moment the virtual volunteers, which included Rotary Club of Sun Lakes Rotarian/SAE Member Don Robins and Rotarians Val Crump and Bill Crump, joined a class of first graders at Auxier Elementary School in Queen Creek, AZ, students immediately lit up. After being isolated from other classmates and outside contact because of COVID-19, the students were so happy to have an outside connection that they hung on their every word. It also didn’t hurt that the volunteers previously worked in the automotive industry which made STEM immediately relatable.
Per a press release statement from Maureen Alger, she stated: “When they shared what they did, it was magical. All kids know cars even if they don’t know engineering. They can envision one of the volunteers building a car and understand it in a much more tangible way than someone working as an accountant for example.”  She further added: “Because volunteers weren’t able to be there in person, they weren’t able to participate in many of the hands-on components that make the AWIM program unique. However, they were still able to find a way to immediately add value by asking leading questions: What do you think is going to happen when we add more weight to the car? What can we do to make sure the car doesn’t tip over? Why do we need three trials instead of just one?”
Beyond the instructional component, the virtual volunteers also helped with social and emotional learning. The first graders had to think about how to interact with adults and also with someone they don’t know—vital skills both in and out of the classroom.
COVID-19 interrupted classroom learning for millions of students. Thanks to teachers like Maureen and volunteers, like those from Rotary Club of Sun Lakes, 16 first graders had a chance to experience a little bit of normalcy while learning about STEM and cars in a fun, hands-on way. An additional on-site AWIM program with Rotarian volunteers was held with Chandler’s Strong Foundation Academy teacher Angie Neal’s Kindergarten class.