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Giving Omaha's Kids a Smart Start in STEM

Remember when you first learned about the tiny molecules that make up every living plant, animal and substance? It seemed an impossible reality to your young mind, as it’s hard to believe what the eye can’t see. But your teacher, like any good teacher, gave you the tools to observe these minute beings on their terms, and the wonder your eyes beheld through the microscope expanded your understanding of fire, water and the breath of life. Up to that point, everything unknown was a curiosity that you couldn’t wrap your head around, but with just the smallest nugget of knowledge the world made a little more sense and a spark was lit.

Margertha McLean, who can’t remember a time when all things science and math didn’t fascinate her, is hoping to plant that same spark in Omaha’s youngest children. As the new owner of Smart Start Learning Center, McLean is putting her training and education to work. She’s spent the past seven years working for two major food companies in a lucrative food scientist and operations manager career, but is taking her degrees in Cellular Biology, Biochemistry and Nutritional Sciences to early childhood education. It may seem like science and childcare wouldn’t mix, but both fields are not all that different, and McLean would be the first to tell you how children can benefit from a STEM education (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) foundations at an early age.

 

"At Smart Start we aim to offer a balanced curriculum with a focus in STEM. This benefits the child's learning trajectory and helps to set measurable goals."
- Margertha McLean

 

While a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, McLean was simultaneously involved in research and tutoring in math and science. Working between two different fields gave her a “unique spin on how science fits hand-in-hand with early childhood education.” An early start leads to a better grasp of more than just biology, chemistry and physics, as it trains children to think and observe in more comprehensive ways. “At Smart Start we aim to offer a balanced curriculum with a focus in STEM,” says McLean. “This benefits the child’s learning trajectory and helps to set measurable goals.”

Former owner, Jayne Buck, had similar ideas when she bought Smart Start in 2012. What was originally intended to be an investment quickly became a project of passion. “I wanted to provide the same services and activities that my own children had when growing up,” says Buck. On that note, she implemented all-inclusive enrichment activities at no extra charge, reviving a neglected center and boosting enrollment from under 25 children to five times that. Programs for school age children were developed, including before and after school care, school transportation and school break programs with field trips and special activities. Children ages 3 and up are exposed to art, dance, soccer, story time and more to provide a well-rounded experience. These added programs and enrichment activities have aided the success of the center, and McLean plans to keep them in place.

But it didn’t happen overnight. Buck put in countless hours, developing a curriculum and setting aggressive goals for growth. She focused on creating an “entire experience for parents and children from start to finish.” Buck introduced the emphasis on healthy eating with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, organized the classrooms and developed the staff to where they are now. She and her husband James “enjoy the process of taking a business, growing it, working on it and seeing the fruits of labor,” says Buck. With Smart Start, it’s been more than just an entrepreneurial endeavor. The Bucks put in countless hours improving the facility with the Early Learning Guidelines in mind to ensure age-appropriate activities were available. It’s been a work of dedication, where Buck became invested in the well-being of the staff, parents and children, and it’s this deep care that she sees in McLean.

Like Buck, McLean didn’t set out to become an owner and of a childcare facility, but when she became pregnant with her daughter, she began to think about how she could work, spend more time with her daughter, and have an impact on education. Her husband, family and friends were supportive, but not without skepticism. Not only would she be leaving behind a thriving career in corporate America, but she’d be taking on something entirely out of her purview.  But this wasn’t done on a whim, and she wasn’t going in without a plan.

Buck already put in place several programs that involve aspects of STEM, but McLean wants to take it even further. With the assistance of her tenured staff, assessment tests will be developed to help meet each child’s individual needs, from toddlers to preschoolers. There is a need for more readiness programs for pre-kindergarten children, and McLean would like to introduce them to robotics and engineering in the form of special building blocks and math brain breaks. Nutrition is equally important, and Smart Start provides healthy meals and snacks to help children gain knowledge of food agriculture and general nutrition.

It’s an ambitious start for McLean, who has already spent her first first month meeting most of the parents, getting to know the children, and working with her knowledgeable staff to help in her transition to ownership. “The teachers have lots of experience – over 20 years’ worth – and have been essential in my coming on boarding,” says McLean. Who knows, maybe one day you'll see other Smart Start Learning Centers in the area, ensuring that Omaha’s children are flourishing and having fun with STEM education.

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