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Entrepreneur Jill Garcia takes challenge of teaching STEAM
Owner of Challenge Island South Charlotte franchise
Published Friday, September 4, 2020 2:06 pm
by Amanda Raymond | For The Charlotte Post

Challenge Island South Charlotte, a STEAM education franchise, offers in-person and online science, technology, engineering, arts and math programs for children ages 4-14.

Growing up, Jill Garcia was always fascinated with how things worked. She even read ingredient lists on food labels just to see what she was eating.

That love of science and math took Garcia from teaching to the pharmaceutical industry where she held senior management roles at Johnson & Johnson. Now, Garcia has brought her love of science to kids with Challenge Island South Charlotte, a STEAM education franchise that offers in-person and online programs for children ages 4-14. Kids are encouraged to collaborate, imagine and build projects that bring abstract science and math concepts to life.

Garcia, owner of the franchise and a STEAM education consultant, said she purchased the rights to the program in the spring 2019. Her goal is to take away misconceptions around math and science to show children, especially African American girls, that they have a place in the industry, too.

“There’s such a huge need for more professionals that look like me in the industry,” she said.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. STEAM adds the arts to the equation. Garcia said students also learn about important historical figures and strengthen their presentation skills during the programs. In that way, Challenge Island offers a little something for everyone.

“The younger we can build a child’s confidence, the more successful they’ll be,” Garcia said.

During a Challenge Island program, students work in groups to solve real-world problems. They build rollercoasters and robots using household supplies, for example. Garcia said the kids listen to age-appropriate music while they work, and she incorporates pop culture to keep them engaged.

Sometimes projects work as intended and sometimes they don’t, and the group has to figure out why. Either way, Garcia said the children are learning valuable lessons.

“I want them talking. I want them out of their seats,” she said. “We call it controlled chaos, but in the end it’s disguised learning.”

Melissa Hart is a parent and Girl Scout troop leader with two daughters in the program. One is more interested in the science and engineering pieces of their projects. The other likes the design and art involved. Both love completing challenges the program offers them.

Hart said the program is a balance of education and fun.

“They’re learning so much, and they probably don’t even realize how much they’re learning,” she said.

Hart learned about Challenge Island’s virtual offerings through the Girl Scouts after the COVID-19 pandemic forced many organizations to suspend programs.

Challenge Island South Charlotte owner Jill Garcia.

With over 100 curriculum hours, Hart said Challenge Island is the perfect solution for busy parents, or troop leaders, looking for additional educational opportunities for their children. After the kids are signed up, the program provides the information and supplies they’ll need to complete their projects.

COVID-19 also pushed Amanda Peters, director of operations at Oakcrest Preparatory Academy at the Steele Creek and Tega Cay locations, to find alternative programming for her students. She couldn’t take students on the usual field trips this past summer, so she turned to Challenge Island’s virtual summer camp program.

Garcia helped Peters choose the challenges that matched her curriculum. Even after the program was over, she found the kids still wanted to play around with their projects and show them off to their families.

“It was really cool that the kids got excited about it,” she said.

Peters said along with the STEAM concepts, her students learned about collaboration and teamwork. And the new skills they were learning were reinforced week after week.

“We saw our children working in groups and working together,” she said. “We really liked how it positively affected the children.”

Challenge Island offers virtual programs throughout the week that last about an hour. They also offer an in-person after-school program at the Matthews Community Center.

To curb the spread of COVID-19, all children are required to wear masks and social distance. They check the temperatures of the kids before they enter the building. Access to the building is limited, meaning no parents or other visitors. Workstations and other high-touch areas are sanitized before, during and after the program, and the kids are encouraged to wash their hands often. They also only use single-use, disposable materials when possible.

Garcia said Challenge Island is a fun, timely and affordable way for parents to get their children interested in STEAM concepts.

“If you’re looking for a program that’s going to be hands-on, highly engaging, fun,” Garcia said, “I highly encourage you to sign up for one of our programs.”

Fall 2020 offerings:

- Social Bubble STEAM Adventures (via Zoom virtual classroom, beginning Sept. 7, for ages K-6) - These virtual enrichment classes allow parents to create and join custom “social bubbles” or pods of kids; they even get to choose the locations and themes for their children’s classes. We will come to you or bring your “bubble” to us.

Imagination Labs - (on-site at the Matthews Community Center, beginning Sept. 8), These programs, which complement their cross-curricular STEAM programs with up to 4 hours of supervised e-learning time, will help children continue to interact with their peers – both in person and virtually.

Virtual Enrichment Classes (via virtual classroom)

Afterschool Enrichment Classes (on-site at the Matthews Community Center)

Girl Scout Virtual Programs (late Sept – November, monthly)

Saturday STEAM Series (monthly themed Saturday events, on-site at the Matthews Community Center/other locations TBA)

Super Star September (Sept 19, 9 a.m.-12 p.m., for ages 6-12) - September is the month to celebrate super stars all over the world, including MVP baseball player Roberto Clemente in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, PT Barnum's Big Top Circus (Greatest Showman) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai for her international activism for girls’ education.

Fright Night Kids' Night Out – (Oct 23 6-9 p.m., for ages 6-12)

October is all about Halloween! Construct a spooky neighborhood and then go trick-or-treating around that neighborhood. Parents can pop the kids in their Halloween costumes, drop them off, and celebrate Halloween on their own. 

Challenge Island's Thanksgiving Workshop – (Nov 21, 9 a.m.-12 p.m., for ages 6-12) - It's a race against time in this Thanksgiving-themed workshop. Kids will help the pilgrims get to America and turkeys to the White House. Then they'll make some buttery slime. 

Challenge Island's Holiday Workshop – (Dec 12, 9 a.m.-12 p.m., for ages 6-12) - Calling all toymakers for Santa’s holiday challenges of setting up shop, building toys, and delivering on time, Challenge Island style.



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