Markham teen wins community leadership scholarship for STEM Kids Rock

She’s 17, loves science and is passionate about encouraging other kids to embrace lab coats and experiments.

Markham teen Keeley Aird is the latest recipient of the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership. The award gives her $70,000 towards university education, a summer job opportunity and access to a network for previous winners.

“It is an incredible honour to be recognized as someone making a difference in my community, for doing something I absolutely love,” Aird said.

She created STEM Kids Rock six years ago with her brother Aidan Aird, 19. Their goal in launching the initiative was to enable other young science, technology, engineering and math enthusiasts to share their knowledge and get others interested.

“We’re trying to start a movement of kids teaching kids, and we see it happening,” Aird explained. “We see kids who are shy and don’t want to talk to anyone, especially adults. Then after a couple of our events, they start to feel comfortable.”

She’s been interested in science – or rather collecting bugs – for as long as she can remember.

“My brother and I didn’t have more knowledge than the average person; we had more bugs,” Aird said.

She says their parents nurtured this budding enthusiasm. On sick days from school and during free evenings, they watched History and Discovery Channel shows and documentaries.

“When you’re outside, you don’t really notice the sun setting until it’s dark,” Aird said about how science grew on her. “It just happened gradually.”

She’s also very eloquent and has a way with words. But that wasn’t always the case.

Aird was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in Grade 6. She says she had learning challenges and was bullied in school because of her differences.

“If I read a book, I don’t necessarily get the story from it, like Harry Potter,” the teen said. “​I have to think differently because my brain is wired differently.”

That, in part, is what motivates her to help other kids come out of their shells and become confident learners and teachers. People with disabilities are encouraged to volunteer at the group’s events.

Patricia Rea, 14, at the Canada-Wide Science Fair in Fredericton where she won silver for her project on engineering for Mars on May 17.

“Just because you’re a little different, doesn’t mean you’re stupid,” Aird said.

Patricia Rea, 14, is a volunteer with STEM Kids Rock. She recently competed in the Canada-Wide Science Fair, the biggest such event in the country, and won silver for her project.

“I genetically engineered the DNA of yeast to express antifreeze proteins and tested them to see if they could survive the extreme temperatures of Mars,” Rea said.

Like Aird, Rea says she has always been interested in the world around her and how things work. Her young imagination had her contemplating how to make a dragon from different animal parts, and now, that focus has evolved into genetic engineering. She credits STEM Kids Rock for helping her along the way.

“It has helped me to reach out and talk to others about science, boost my confidence, get more experience teaching others and network with others,” Rea said.

The Airds started by setting up tables at school and community events a few years ago, and since then, they have organized 300 free events across the province for more than 150,000 participants.

“It’s a place for kids to teach kids, a place to have a conversation about science,” Aird said. “No one is better than anyone else, and it’s honestly a lot of fun.”

Aidan is now studying engineering at the University of Toronto and isn’t able to devote as much time to the group. Keeley herself is soon headed to Hamilton to study physical and chemical sciences at McMaster. But she says she’s committed to keeping her group growing.

She turns 18 this summer and wants to apply for the national charitable organization status. Despite life starting to get more serious, she believes she will never be too busy for her passion project.

“If you love something, you always find the time,” she said. “Someone may watch Netflix, I find time for STEM Kids Rock.”

STEM Kids Rock will be at the Markham Village Music Festival on June 15 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and at the Markham Children’s Festival on Aug. 24 at the Markham Civic Centre.

Main photo: Markham teen Keeley Aird at Science Rendezvous on Main Street Markham on May 11. Photo courtesy of Keeley Aird.

Story written by Amar Shah, former journalist with CBC and CTV News.

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