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Clarke Alum Shares STEM/STEAM Experiences and Advice

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Julien poses with a robot his team constructed.

National STEM/STEAM Day happens each year in the fall, celebrating the importance of education in science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM). Since the early 2000s, nationwide efforts have bolstered the importance of science, technology, engineering and math skills, with the movement progressing more recently to include the arts as well. While STEM skills help students learn to solve complex problems, think critically and value innovation, STEAM skills broaden this skillset by incorporating the development of creativity, collaboration and communication competence.

Clarke alum Julien, a high school sophomore who attended Clarke’s preschool and received Clarke’s Mainstream Services, encompasses these important qualities (and more!) as a member of his school’s competitive robotics team and an accomplished guitar player.

Here, Julien shares his STEAM experiences as a student, engineering enthusiast and musician.

My name is Julien. I’m a proud Clarke alum with mild to moderate sensorineural hearing loss. I wear hearing aids, and I’m a high school sophomore in Philadelphia. One of my passions is the nexus of engineering and robotics. Sometimes I joke that I always had an interest in robotics because of my bionic ears.

Taking Advantage of School and Community Activities

My school has a robust robotics and engineering program*, which I have participated in since first grade. I joined a small robotics team in lower school, called FLL (First Lego League). The objective of the competition was to create a robot out of Lego bricks to complete a variety of pre-assigned tasks. Later, in high school, I joined our school’s flagship robotics team. Instead of Legos, we used steel. Our robotics team competed against 3,800 other teams from around the world in intense tournaments.

In 2022, our team was fortunate enough to qualify for the world championship in Houston, where we joined more than 30,000 students to compete in a multi-day event. As you can imagine, robotics competitions are LOUD, and the acoustics are often less than ideal.  Sometimes I struggle to decipher words among the din, and I find myself relying on the advocacy skills that I learned from my time at Clarke.

For instance, when I was in Costa Rica on a summer Spanish exchange program, I couldn’t understand what other teens were saying because of the wind. I felt comfortable explaining that I had hearing loss and that I needed other people to speak up. Clarke helped me feel comfortable with my hearing aids and with who I am.

While at the world championship, my roles included scouting out competitive teams’ capabilities and strategies, as well as attending their chairmen’s speeches, written oral presentations of a research and design project. The presentation is prepared throughout the season and then unveiled in front of a panel of judges. As a then-freshman team member, I have not had the opportunity to present to the judges yet, but thanks to Clarke’s speech therapy, I feel extremely confident in my public speaking abilities and welcome the challenge!

Finding Respite and Fascination in the Arts

Julien playing electric bass guitar in his school’s spring concert, April 2022.

STEM courses are not my only high school interests. I’m interested in music and love reading and writing. I have always held reading close to my heart. When I was younger, hearing aid technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and I would often encounter feedback from my aids. At the end of a long day filled with strenuous listening, it felt great to simply take them out and read.** This way, I could get lost in a book for hours. There were no distractions, feedback, nor squeaks, just me, the book and its story. The electric bass guitar was a similar escape for me. Every student that attends a listening and language preschool will develop a fascination with sounds. I have always loved the power that comes from playing electric bass. It feels incredible to be able to create sound, even if I am lacking the natural ability to hear it.

My advice to kids with hearing loss interested in STEM is to not doubt yourself. Pursue what you love and persevere through whatever technical differences come your way! You are just as capable and smart as all of the other kids; nothing is standing in the way of accomplishing your dreams.

* Organizations such as 4-H and Girls Inc. offer local robotics activities, STEM activities and low-cost kits.

** Clarke acknowledges that students who are deaf or hard of hearing need to take breaks to counter listening fatigue, a common experience for people with hearing loss who use hearing technology. These individuals need to work harder—physically and mentally—to access, process and interpret sound and can become fatigued from the work of extended periods of listening. We commend Julien’s ability to identify when this fatigue has set in and how to respond by taking a “listening break”—an essential form of self-care. (Read more about listening breaks on Clarke’s Hear Me Out blog.) We also recognize that if hearing technology is producing frequent and bothersome feedback, an assessment from an audiologist is in order.

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