By Kelly Pollock, feature writer for The Buzz Cafe
Maryann Woods was always a curious kid. Her mom still tells the story of how she would go under the kitchen table as a five-year-old, unscrew everything, and then put it all back together. “I was always asking ‘Why? Why does it work like this? Why does it do this?’ I like to know a lot of different things so I ask a lot of questions,” says Maryann. Now she has combined her passion for STEM and her love of teaching at Problem Solvers at 17 Harrison Street in the Oak Park Arts District where she offers STEM programming to elementary and middle school students.
Growing up in a missionary household, Maryann spent a lot of her summers in India where she always spent time with the children—teaching songs, doing arts and crafts, and playing cricket. “I had a huge passion for kids and for a long time I wanted to be a pediatrician,” says Maryann, “But then I realized that I wanted to have my own children someday and I wanted to have enough time to be with them. So I decided to become a teacher.”
She attended Trinity International University in Deerfield where she earned her B.A. in Elementary Education and her M.Ed. in Diverse Learning. She started her career teaching fifth grade in Waukegan and then her principal asked her to pilot a STEM program. “I was teaching in a low-income community with few resources, but our goal was that every student in the district would have access to the program.” Maryann wrote the curriculum and it was eventually rolled out to every elementary and middle school in the district.
“It was a dream job. It combined all my passions—science, technology, engineering, and math—and I got to teach them to kids. But then I felt a call from God to quit my job.” Her faith is a big part of her life, so Maryann told her principal that the 2019-2020 school year would be her last.
To make ends meet during the pandemic, she started tutoring and doing custom design work. She incorporated her business as Niravadhi Services. “My parents are from India and Niravadhi means ‘several’ in Sanskrit. So my business name literally means ‘several services’ which is perfect because I’ve always been a jack-of-all-trades.”
When asked how she ended up opening Problem Solvers (the education services arm of her business), Maryann laughs. “I had no intention of opening up a storefront. I was just looking for a small storage space, but then my realtor showed me the photos and the price was reasonable. I got the keys on July 1.” Maryann had never abandoned her dream of making STEM accessible to all children, and now with her new space, she is hoping to make it a reality. “Problem Solvers is all about getting kids to think critically. Too many kids are focused on instant gratification. If something doesn’t work, then they just give up and move on. We teach them how to push through and persevere.”
The new space is designed for after-school and summer camp programming for students in grades K-8. Maryann is planning to start with classes in LEGO Robotics, Storybook STEM, and Laser Printing. While there is a one-week camp session August 8-12, most programming will begin in September. All classes focus on the Engineering Design Process, problem solving, and learning through play.
Both Maryann’s businesses have a charitable component inspired by 1 Peter 4:10, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” She donates 70% of the profits from her custom design work to two non-profits—Urban Reformers and Reaching Indians Ministries International. And she is committed to providing Problem Solvers scholarships to students in need to make STEM education more accessible.
Maryann still can’t believe how much her life has changed in the last few years. She quit her teaching job, started a non-profit with friends, moved from her parents’ home, met and married her husband, and started her business. She and her husband Raymond have a white board in their home where they write down their dreams. Looking around her new space, Maryann says, “Everything that’s here is on that white board. It’s amazing to see it all become a reality.”
To learn more about her custom design work, visit www.niravadhi.com. For the Problem Solvers class schedule and to book online, visit www.problemsolversstem.com. Maryann Woods can be reached at 847-331-2641.