Program Expands Link Between Education and STEM Entrepreneurship

(Last Updated On: July 6, 2016)

by Mollie McKinley

In the auditorium’s second row, six middle school boys wait for their turn to shine. The auditorium’s red walls set the atmosphere—a power color. All summer, they have been working hard, innovating, and most importantly, trying to change the course of their own lives.

King Wall, an upcoming eighth-grader at Southern Guilford Middle School, finally gets his chance to approach the microphone. He looks sharp wearing a dark green polo shirt with khaki pants. With his partner, Jalen Fairley, an upcoming eighth grader at Southeast Guilford, the pair looks at one another for reassurance. The panel of judges waits quietly just a few feet away from the presenters. Each have a tablet in hand.

But they aren’t just any judges. There’s Kevin Liles, founder and CEO of KWL Management, Greg Currie, managing director of business sales at Verizon Wireless and Anthony Graham, N.C. A&T’s dean of the School of Education.

At the end of the program, there will be first-, second-, and third-place gift cards.

King takes a long pause. It’s his birthday.

His 13th birthday. Jalen fixes his yellow polo shirt and smooths out his black pants. They came to win.

Spoiler alert: they do. The pair, along with four other boys, has been working on app designs all summer, leading up to this one moment—an elevator pitch to the esteemed Liles and Currie.

But they aren’t just any boys. They are minority boys. They are African American boys. They make up only 3 percent of scientists and engineers working in those fields, according to the National Science Foundation in 2010. African Americans make up about 14 percent of the total workforce but just a little over 6 percent of that figure work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs.

In recent years, the focus has been turned to empowering women in STEM disciplines, but minority males remain underrepresented, and few programs existed that specifically targeted that problem.

Until 2015. The Verizon Innovative Learning Program for Minority Males was created last year to combat this low percentage as a first-of-its-kind, two-year program that gives minority boys in middle school access to high-level technology, including coding, robotics, and 3D design, along with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and entrepreneurship skills. Liles, its keynote speaker, was present to give his ‘Entrepreneurship 101’ question and answer session, moderated by B- Daht, a radio host with 102 JAMZ FM.

During the summer, the students participate in all-day technology classes on college campuses. In this case, the group of 100 students called N.C. A&T their home in the Academic Classroom building. With the help of this program, middle school boys are given the chance to see a brighter future in STEM disciplines and careers.

Liles himself knows the importance of technology in young minds after watching his children grow up.

“The adoption rate [of technology] is so high that if kids don’t make it part of their everyday life, they’ll get left behind,” says Liles, who is also a partner in 300 Entertainment and founder of RSM Sports Management Group.

“It will be a way of life,” he says. “You have to be prepared to constantly evolve and change, and personally update yourself.”

Liles attended Morgan State University in Baltimore on an electrical engineering scholarship—another reason why STEM is significant in his life.

“I believe science, technology, engineering and math are in everyday life,” says Liles. “There is a design to everything.”

It is precisely that which Verizon’s program has been instilling in the minds of middle schoolers, like King and Jalen.

With this in mind, the pair begins to give their elevator pitch: a Def Jam Recordings Promotion app.

Fitting, because Liles was also the president of Def Jam Recordings, a music company, and executive vice president of The Island Def Jam Music group from 1999 to 2004.

The boys’ app is designed to show Def Jam’s most popular songs from 1984 to 2016, while featuring some of Def Jam’s most famous artists and information highlighting them. Both boys agreed that the app was marketed towards those who are interested in being a part of Def Jam Recordings. On the screen above, a woman is showcasing their app and all of its features.

Each app creation was certainly a feat for the six boys. With hands-on application like this, it’s no wonder that the program’s first year was such a success.

And they have the numbers to prove it. Out of 473 middle school boys, 100 percent of students increased mobile technology proficiency, 75 percent increased interest in STEM subjects, and 69 percent increased interest in STEM careers. The data was collected through pre- and posttest surveys given to the students, as well as the instructors. King was one of those students whose interest skyrocketed after his time in the program.

“At first, my whole plan was to be a lawyer, and I still want to be that,” King says. “But through my first four years of college, I’d like to be an engineer. It would be great for me to have an engineering job while going through law school.”

King’s parents, Trevis and Liane Wall, fully support of their son’s dreams. After the competition, the two stood in the hallway leading out of the auditorium, excited to congratulate their son.

“[King] always said he wanted to be a lawyer,” says Liane. “But being able to attend this camp has shown him technology that he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. Now he’s more interested in technology.”

However, they both understand that for African Americans, increasing that 3 percent, as stated above, will be an uphill battle.

When asked if his son will break stereotypes, Trevis says, “Not alone, because a lot of the time, social conditions won’t allow them to reach those heights. It’s really about funding, and having programs for these children.”

King’s parents believe the Verizon program will inspire and instill dedication and hard work into the minds of young boys.

“You can have a dream. But if you can’t see it, you can’t achieve it,” says Liane.

Trevis and Liane weren’t the only proud parents in the audience, though.

Wanda Wilson sat in the back of the auditorium, watching her son, Marcus Woodbury, present his Def Jam app. It features their greatest hits, artists, and the history of Def Jam, while also linking users to artists’ official websites and tour dates.

Afterward, Marcus was so nervous he couldn’t answer questions—but his mother could. She believes that this program has expanded her child’s future opportunities and his confidence.

“He’s pretty confident with himself, and I think platforms like this allow him to build his confidence that these things are achievable,” she says. “Seeing people like Kevin Liles lets them know that you don’t have to be a statistic just because you’re a young, black male.”

How right she was. By being a part of this program, all 100 boys, including her son, would be breaking the barrier between African American males and STEM education.

Trey Savage, a seventh-grader at Allen Middle School, wants his STEM education to propel him into a future of success and stardom in his passion for music—which is where he and his partner got the idea for their app.

This app showed users tips on how to become good producers and business owners. Trey, unlike Marcus, wasn’t nervous at all.

In fact, he prepared a rap for the judges, which he performed at full blast over the microphone. It wasn’t for naught, though, because it gave the audience a sense of his passion.

“Opportunities like this will get me a good job so I can support my family and become better at what I do,” Trey says.

At the end of Liles’ session, he gave some encouraging closing words about entrepreneurship for the young minds in attendance.

“Go build a career. Be better. Don’t accept the norm,” says Liles. “Find passion.

Build something. Do it with friends. Don’t waste it. You have everything. You have the ability to be great.”

Liles noted that he and his team will be leaving and going back to their normal day-to-day routines. The university will go back to doing its thing.

“But,” Liles says, “The rest is up to you.

Take the responsibility for yourself. Be the best you.”

As the chaperones rounded up their students, there was something different about each and every boy. Their eyes gleamed brighter, their posture more erect, words left their mouths more purposefully. They would never be the same.

And you could almost feel those percentages rising, along with King and Jalen, basking in their victory with high-fives, while exiting the auditorium side-by-side. !