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CHICAGO — A local family of educators and mechanical engineers is helping students of all ages with an innovative approach through their foundation.

Steve and Sheila Conner said when their son Stone expressed his extreme dislike for middle school, they knew they had to take action and began asking him about his interests.

By visiting car museums and other real-world experiences, the Conner’s were able to capture their son’s attention.

But it also left the pair with a desire to help other students.

“What we realized was that our kid represented many, many other kids,” Sheila said. “That’s when we thought this is an issue, we have the solution we can provide.”

In 2014, the two founded the Heph Foundation. Short for the Greek God Hephhaesis, it is a standards-aligned program that teaches science, technology, engineering and math.

By using technology and other project-based learning, students learn by doing.

The Conner’s said technology, such as an interactive video game, can make learning fun and interesting.

“It’s all about going into a specific environment, no matter what it is, assessing it and giving them a problem,” Steve said.

The program, called Dream Teams, was first introduced to students at Oak Park River Forest High School.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the innovative pair made a smooth transition to at-home learning.

“They drop off a gift, the kid leaves the Zoom, goes, opens the door, there is a building robots and all this fun stuff, interacting with their classmates online,” Carrie Summy with the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation.

The Oak Park River Forest Foundation awarded the Conner’s a $1.2 million grant for their work.

The foundation’s president and CEO Tony Martinez said although the donors are anonymous, it is important that the Conner’s are allowed to build on the contributions they have made to students and the community.

The Conner’s say the best part is the reaction they receive from the children.

“At the end of it, when they get a lab coat and they say ‘I’m an engineer,’ and they’re so proud,” Sehila said