By Diana Schwaeble
One thing is certain at Hoboken’s Rocket Club: Every child who participates will gain valuable skills for any STEM related job, says Director Paulo Nunes. He has big hopes and even bigger ambitions for the next generation. It’s all about making a better world, he says.
The club, which opened in February at the Monroe Center, teaches real-world skills to kids ages 9-14. Each student will learn about robotics, coding, and entrepreneurship, all necessary to be successful in the tech market. Nunez believes that the changes in robotics and coding can be compared to the changes when we went from stone tools to steel tools. “It’s not going to change some things,” he says. “It probably is going to change everything. So we want to get ahead of that. We want to equip the next generation with the knowhow, the business skills, and the people skills.”
Equipping the Next Gen
Nunes says the club wouldn’t be anything without founder Alex Hodara, who was named by Forbes as a “30 Under 30.” He completely funded the club and established connections with other Forbes members, who help mentor the kids. The pair spent a lot of time thinking about the curriculum and studying other business models to develop a program that was relevant, would add value, and perhaps most important, hold the attention of the kids.
Club members have their own stations and follow a self-based curriculum. Nunes is passionate when describing the program, particularly when showing off the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 Education Kit that each member uses to build robotics. Nunes explains: “The metrics are there. If we were to do a presentation, not everyone will have the confidence to ask a question. And then they fall behind.”
Their goal is to equip the next generation with the skills and confidence to see a project through to completion. “The average adult has been told no so many times that we have this invisible shelf of what we think we are capable of,” Nunes says. “Kids don’t have that. You set kids down with a set of skills, they will see how far they can go. It is also in part why we picked that age group. Before that, the coding and the lessons would be too hard. And after that, I think you are a little too busy and maybe you become a little too cool.”
Becoming a Member
The design for the room is simple. They wanted the place to look like a garage similar to the workshop spaces of Apple and Microsoft, pictures of which are on the clean, white walls. A bicycle hangs from a hook in the ceiling, and pictures of space line the wall in the hallway. Nunes says they want the afterschool program to be immersive. Rocket Club, Rocket Fuel, Mission Control, all intrinsic parts of the whole. Each member gets a Rocket Club jacket, which mimics an old NASA bomber jacket. Members get to be a part of something bigger than themselves and yet find common interests.
In the Rocket Fuel system, students earn “fuel” in a variety of ways that they can spend to purchase games. They are awarded fuel for attendance, robotic challenges, consultations, and moral objectivism. The moral objectives are hidden, so the kids don’t know what it is they are earning fuel for. For example, if a student works on a consultation for free, he or she is rewarded for generosity. The aim isn’t just to help the students get smarter. The goal is to make them better people.
Nunes wishes there was a program like this when he was a kid. Gone are the days where you work 20 or 30 years for the same corporation, he says. You have to find a way to amass skills and produce results. One way they prepare students is through the Business Competition, which is held at the end of each semester. The competition, called Mission Control, is similar to Shark Tank. Students present their business plans to three judges. “They will be competing for $10,000 in real money,” Nunes says. “When each kid leaves Rocket Club, we want them to have a game or an app, or a business on Kickstarter. We want them to walk away having achieved something.”
Building a Better Future
The inaugural semester was limited to 30 participants in two-hour weekly sessions per group on Monday, Wednesday or Friday. In the fall, they plan to hold sessions on weekends to meet the demand. Seventy kids are on the waiting list for the fall semester. The current group has about 40 percent girls. Three girls currently hold first, second, and third place. “They are kicking butt,” Nunes says.
“The people who win in 2019 are incrementally better,” he says. “Even in sports there are no more blowouts. It’s all about inches. The more we can get them thinking about the small things that can give them an advantage, we can help them make a difference.”
Nunes believes that any success he’s had in life was because someone took an interest in him and encouraged him to do better. He’s inspired by people with an ironclad will, who have climbed Mount Everest and don’t let environmental situations deter them from their goals.
“The best thing we can do is give people the courage and the confidence to move forward with what they care about,” Nunes says. “The person who skips meals or loses sleep, it’s not because they are getting paid. It’s because they care so much about it that that drive and that ambition and that enjoyment fuel them.”—07030
Rocket Club is at 720 Monroe Street. For more information, visit www.OfficialRocketClub.com.