Full STEAM Ahead: Tech & DHS Collaboration Keep Students Engaged


Oregon technology company teams up with DHS client and popular online game to encourage STEAM learning

BEAVERTON – Ron White, a Beaverton business owner, wanted to give something back to the community. He also wanted a way to engage young people in learning and problem solving. His business, BESThq helps support and grow small and historically underrepresented entrepreneurs. So, helping youth succeed was a natural fit. 

What he has been doing for the past three years is connecting third through eighth graders with STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) professionals. STEAM is a process for teaching problem solving, critical thinking and inquiry. The STEAM professionals meet with about 25 students and their parents every month at BESThq convening through Minecraft, a virtual reality game. 

“It was very hands-on. We’d organized the kids into teams. They’d follow a problem in Minecraft. They each had a STEAM coach. Then, they would present what they did as a team – using skills they will need as adults. We’d give them a microphone. The iPhones would come out to video it. Very inspiring,” White said.  

The monthly free event became very popular and filled rapidly with participants in early March for the event later that month. 

Then, on March 23. Governor Kate Brown issued an Executive Order to stay home and stay safe due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We didn’t want to disappoint the kids. We couldn’t gather in-person. We had to do this virtually,” White said. 

Luckily, last summer he had reached out to Dirkse Consulting and Counseling to find someone who could help his staff with the Minecraft server administration. Dirkse has a contract with the Department of Human Services’ Vocational Rehabilitation and Office of Developmental Disabilities Services programs. Dirkse works with youth with developmental and/or intellectual disabilities find and succeed in career jobs. 

“This was the criteria for the job: Young person who likes Minecraft,” White said.  

Dirkse found the perfect job fit in Aaron Tore. 

To solve the current issue, the STEAM Minecraft team gathered to brainstorm how to do a fully virtual experience. Tore identified a seamless solution completely new to the team, called Discord, a digital platform for video gaming groups, for connecting everyone online. 

“In five minutes, Aaron had us up and running,” White said. 

Aaron Tore controls Discord from the empty BESThq office.

Their first virtual Minecraft/STEAM event took place in March. It was a success. The technology worked. Twenty-one kids, their parents and the STEAM experts joined the event. Many of the children participants have economic, developmental or social interaction issues. Being a part of the Minecraft/STEAM event helps them learn to work in a team and teaches them the elements of STEAM. The most recent April event also drew about 20 kids and their parents. 

Tore said, “I am just having fun doing this — just to see how many people actually show up on the server.” He helps the players find locations; restores the hub area and make sure the kids don’t spam the server. He has also learned how to manage a virtual office space without any space being around. 

Tore was hired to facilitate Minecraft but because of his strengths and skills,he now also works as the office administrator for BESThq. 

And this is exactly what the Vocational Rehabilitation program’s goal is: helping people find meaningful employment.

“We are able to work with our venders who partner with clients to find the type of job that is fulfilling and meaningful and that can lead to advancement,” said Keith Ozols, director of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Heidi Dirkse Graw, president and CEO, said that her company assesses the strengths of the clients before helping with a job placement. 

“We work to give people a chance to get in the door of a business so they can show what they are capable of. Aaron showed he was so much more capable of just running the Minecraft event.” 

White is now looking funding to expand the STEAM Minecraft virtual event to at least five times a week to serve more kids – especially now while kids are staying home due to COVID-19. 

“This program provides a unique learning opportunity. It connects STEAM professions to help open doors and opportunity for our next gen STEAM pros. I hope to make a difference with these kids,” White said. 

Learn more about the Minecraft/STEAM event.

About Author

Christine Stone is a Communications Officer with the Department of Human Services.

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