Bringing STEM Education to Underserved Communities

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A pharmacy college may seem like an unlikely setting for training the next generation of minority STEM students. But five years ago, the Albany College of Pharmaceutical and Health Sciences set up an after-school program called the ACPHS Academy that has exposed hundreds of minority students from poor communities to science and math.

Becky Beach, director of the ACPHS Academy, said the two-hour, after-school program serves about 100 kids from third grade to eighth grade. Meeting on the ACPHS campus, instructors lead the children through a range of demonstrations and problem-solving - from water-balloon experiments to robotics - all designed to show the real-life applications of STEM.

"I like to think that we are a special and unique program," Beach says, noting that getting underserved kids involved in STEM should be a national priority. "This is absolutely something that every college or university should offer. We are encouraging young students to think about their future. That's really important to us as a nation" to avoid falling further behind the world.

In Fresno, California, the SAM Academy is a science, music and art lab on wheels that makes the rounds to schools, libraries and events in the Central Valley, a rural community that is home to thousands of migrant Latino farm workers. The mobile classroom features wireless Internet connections, computer monitors and science equipment as well as musical instruments and hands-on activities, demonstrating how art and science can intersect.

Four thousand miles away, Captain Barrington Irving says he thought football was his way out of his tough Miami neighborhood. But a chance meeting with an airline pilot at his parents' bookstore when he was 15 inspired him to go from the gridiron to an aviation school, where he graduated with honors. In 2007, he set a new Guinness World Record when he became the youngest pilot - and the first black American - to fly solo around the globe. It took him 97 days and 26 stops to complete the trip.

Friends and family members doubted his decision to turn down a football scholarship to the University of Florida in favor of going to aviation school. "Everyone thought I was crazy. My coaches thought I had a psychological breakdown," Irving recalled during a break-out session of the U.S. News STEM Solutions conference in Washington, D.C., in April. "When you pursue these types of fields where I come from, not everyone jumps up and down and says, 'Go ahead - you can do it.' "  

In 2005, at the age of 21, Irving created Experience Aviation, a hands-on institute dedicated to encouraging young, disadvantaged African Americans to "identify and follow their dreams" in math, science, engineering or aviation. After challenging students to build an airplane from scratch - which he then flew himself - Irving has now tasked them with building a "supercar" which he'll race against an airplane, chasing a speed record.

Yet Irving's most eye-opening feat has occurred after his students leave Experience Aviation. The website boasts that, so far, 87 percent of them pursue STEM careers, they've racked up more than $1.36 million in scholarship money, and the program has provided nearly 570,000 total hours of hands-on instruction - and counting.

Perhaps the most ambitious program to encourage African American and Latino students in STEM fields is the SMASH Academy, run by the Level Playing Field Institute. Inspired by her home state's decision to drop the admissions policies that encourage minority students to enroll in the state's elite public colleges, Kapor Klein created the LPFI with her husband, software millionaire Mitchell Kapor.

The LPI in turn created the SMASH Academy, which takes promising middle- and high-school kids from poor communities in Oakland and San Francisco and gives them rigorous summertime math and science instruction with participating faculty on one of four participating college campuses: Stanford University, the University of Southern California, University of California-Los Angeles and the University of California-Berkeley.

Besides giving students a taste of college life, what sets the SMASH Academy apart is the social justice component of the program, says Jarvis Sulcer, LPFI's executive director. The students are encouraged to use their technology know-how to solve problems in their own communities - including creating apps to help people find jobs and count calories, useful in urban areas with high unemployment and chronic obesity.

The program went a step further, however, after administrators noticed a dearth of qualified African American boys enrolling in SMASH Academy. The result: SMASH Prep, a two-days-a-month preparatory course designed to get black boys into the STEM pipeline and teach them life skills to boot.

"We believe we spark a lifetime interest in technology," Sulcer says. When underserved kids get trained in STEM, he adds, "just imagine how much more innovation that could happen in the whole population."

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