Kaelyn Burke, 4, made the tallest tower out of marshmallows and straws during a competition at her school, Cedar Tree Academy in Southeast, aimed at getting minority girls interested in STEM fields. (Courtesy of Oscar Merrida IV)

The challenge for a group of kindergartners Saturday morning was not just to keep from eating the marshmallows set in front of them but to turn them, along with a pile of straws, into the tallest tower they could build.

The children at Cedar Tree Academy in the District set to work. As their hands got stickier, their towers rose and fell. Nearby, professional engineers and scientists offered advice about structure and support. Finally time was up, and the measuring tape came out.

One sturdy structure with four walls that measured 11.5 inches drew applause, while its builder, 4-year old Kaelyn Burke, beamed.

So did her mother, Ladeja Burke. “She always likes to explore and watch videos about how to make things,” she said.

The activity was part of a “make-a-thon,” designed to encourage the students, all African Americans attending school in a poor neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, to focus their talents as they grow older on building bridges, towers and gadgets.

Nationally, the numbers of female African American and Latino students who pursue high-
paying jobs related to science, technology, engineering or math remain small. Research shows that many students lose interest in the fields or confidence in their abilities by middle school.

That’s why it’s important to hook them early and let them know the kinds of jobs they could eventually pursue, said Rachel Williams, one of the founders of Paige & Paxton, a Chicago-based family business that organized the make-a-thon.

“Kids at this age, the world’s in front of them,” she said. “They can be anything they want to be.”

Williams, a journalist by training, wanted to encourage her daughters to pursue science and math when they were young, so she created stories about two ­puzzle-piece characters who lived in “Puzzleland” and were trying to make sense of the world around them. The stories offered mini lessons on botany or engineering or mathematics.

She also sought enrichment opportunities for them, got a family membership to the local science museum and ignored their pleas to go to gymnastics camp. She sent them to summer school for math three years in a row instead.

It worked. Both daughters continued to study science and math in college. One daughter pursued a career in finance; the other is studying to become a dentist.

They also became interested in encouraging other African American girls to pursue math and science.

So last year the mother-daughter trio launched their business, Paige & Paxton, named for the two puzzle-piece characters that Williams created to teach her daughters when they were young. They updated Williams’s handmade books and turned them into a brightly colored series that introduces children to fields such as paleontology, botany and engineering.

Their business also offers an elementary curriculum and professional development. They work with Chicago Public Schools to provide curriculum for its elementary schools focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

During their make-a-thons, the trio aims to expose children and their parents to the STEM fields and the potential for jobs.

On Saturday, while children were designing prototypes with magic markers and building their towers, Williams offered parents tips on how they can encourage their children in the technical fields.

Ebony Gerald, 25, brought her daughter Jalaya to school for the activity because she wanted to expose her to something new.

“If she likes what she’s doing here, I want to find other things like this for her to do,” she said. “If not, I want to help her find something else that she likes.”

Gerald said she became interested in mortuary science through a summer job after high school. She learned a lot about the human body and the business of death. But she did not go back to school and pursue it when she started having kids.

“I couldn’t follow my dream, so I want to help her follow hers,” she said.