Preparing today’s students for the careers of tomorrow is more than simply teaching them how to code. Building digital skills also requires understanding how technology impacts people and the world around us. 

Locally, Waterloo-based LAUNCH and InkSmith have made STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) education more well-rounded by making environmental and arts-and-culture components part of their programming. 

LAUNCH Waterloo, founded in 2018, has taken a page from the minor sports playbook by creating a digital skills league, complete with teams, coaches and players. InkSmith is an education technology startup that creates learning tools for educators using 3D printing, robotics and other STEAM tools. 

LAUNCH Waterloo founder Tobi Day-Hamilton and InkSmith founder Jeremy Hedges announced they are working together to bring their brand of digital skills training to students across Canada, thanks to a $1.5-million investment from the federal government’s CanCode program. LAUNCH Waterloo is using the funding to create a Canadian Minor STEAM Association in cities across the country.

Day-Hamilton said that the idea of working together to make the association a reality started with a phone call.

“Jeremy reached out and asked if we’d be interested in partnering and I said of course! We just thought that two Waterloo Region companies working together on this would be great, especially with our shared focus on social entrepreneurship,” Day-Hamilton said.

Creating a Canada-wide STEAM league was always in the plans for the LAUNCH Waterloo team, but like all plans, the pandemic forced them to alter their roadmap. Day-Hamilton said LAUNCH Waterloo was still planning its programming when the pandemic hit. 

“We weren’t even thinking about offering programs yet. But when the pandemic struck, we thought, well, kids need something to do. They’re at home and not going to school. Let’s pull something together online for them to do,” Day-Hamilton said.

The LAUNCH Waterloo Steam League launched with participants from across Ontario, including Ottawa, Peterborough, Muskoka and Waterloo Region. When pandemic restrictions loosened last year, LAUNCH Waterloo started to offer in-person programming at its space in Catalyst137. 

“We had small groups and the kids really loved it. Then things shut down again. It’s been a roller coaster throughout the pandemic,” Day-Hamilton said.

LAUNCH Waterloo's Josie Bird helps a student
at a LAUNCH program last fall.
(Photo courtesy: LAUNCH Waterloo)

With restrictions now easing again, Day-Hamilton said she’s excited to work with Hedges and the InkSmith team to develop a coaching academy to get leagues started. For Hedges, who is also founder of personal protective equipment (PPE) startup The Canadian Shield, working with LAUNCH Waterloo is an opportunity to return to his educational tech roots.

InkSmith started with educational material for 3D printers and laser cutters. Today, it develops robotics kits for teaching software coding. The lessons focus on creating solutions for climate or social issues using technology. 

One example is designing a solution for agricultural sustainability by building a hydroponics set with an automated watering system. Hedges said working with LAUNCH Waterloo is a natural fit for InkSmith and his new endeavour. 

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to scale together. Our content will support their students in the Canadian Minor STEAM Association as they scale across Canada,” Hedges said.

Day-Hamilton said the team is now planning out their next steps with the funding in hand. The work includes launching a Coach Academy, finalizing the curriculum with InkSmith and onboarding city partners to get the leagues up and running.

While the funding has accelerated LAUNCH Waterloo’s plans, Day-Hamilton said the program is sticking to the core mission to bring a youth sports training mentality to STEAM education.

“We know that the sports model works. It works in hockey. It works in soccer. It works in dance and gymnastics. It gets kids inspired in a fun way to do things – and it will work for STEAM and e-sports, too,” Day-Hamilton said.

Hedges and Day-Hamilton also said they want the Canadian Minor STEAM Association to create opportunities for every interested child to participate.

“The biggest thing for us is reaching kids who are the furthest from opportunity. Right now, we partner with House of Friendship, Carizon and other community service organizations so that everyone has an opportunity to play in this, because it’s really about breaking down those barriers to get into science and tech,” Day-Hamilton said.

Hedges is hopeful that the Canadian Minor STEAM Association will help broaden the horizon of what’s possible for students in Canada. 

“I’m hopeful that teaching digital literacy and creativity along with critical thinking skills may help set these other generations up for a better world,” Hedges said.