(NEW YORK) – Former WNBA player Niesha Butler has opened the first Afro-Latina-owned STEM camp, STEAM Champs, in New York City to reduce barriers to accessibility to technological educational resources for youth in Brooklyn.
“If a kid could actually say he can be LeBron James and get him off his tongue as easily as that, then he can literally say ‘yeah, I can put a man on the moon too’ or ‘I can create that too. the next app,” Butler told ABC News.
Butler, a native of New York, says “there’s talent in Brooklyn.” She created STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Champs in the middle of Brooklyn to encourage inner-city youth to channel their ambition into educational opportunities. Butler also hires interns, some of whom have tried coding with the program for the first time, she says.
“People are selling basketball dreams every two seconds in our community. I thought it was really important to sell those tech dreams,” Butler said.
Prior to opening its doors in Brooklyn, Butler partnered with organizations such as Girl Scouts, BronxWorks, and a local AAU basketball team to host STEM-focused workshops, reaching more than 300 students from New York. Monday was the first day of camp at the newly opened facility.
“There aren’t a lot of people of color in tech,” Butler said. “These jobs are open to anyone and they’re empty…so obviously we need to do a better job of educating our kids and recruiting them.”
Other tech education camps and workshops across the country have worked to bridge the gap and make tech careers interesting and accessible to students in underserved communities.
Black Girls CODE is one such resource offering workshops and public speaking opportunities for black girls. Program alumni Kimora Oliver and Azure Butler say the program’s first chapter in the California Bay Area created an environment that empowered local black female students to project themselves into the tech industry.
“Unfortunately, STEM is a white, male dominated field,” Oliver told ABC News. “I feel like [Black Girls CODE] gives a diverse group of black girls the visibility they need to decide for themselves if they want to continue with STEM in the future.
For nearly 40 years, another program called Academically Interest Minds (AIM) at Kettering University has tailored its pre-college curriculum to expose young people of color to STEM courses and campus life.
“49% of African-American students attending Kettering University now are AIM graduates,” Ricky D. Brown, director of the university’s multicultural student initiatives and AIM program, told ABC News.
For many, STEM educational resources introduce an element of choice into exploring STEM and exploring pathways of academic interests.
A study published in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicates that early intervention programs such as STEAM Champs, AIM and Black Girls CODE are effective in helping students succeed in higher education and STEM majors.
“Some of these kids don’t have computers at home to study,” Butler said. “When I go to some of these centres, they don’t have good Wi-Fi…they have outdated computers.”
According to the study, the underrepresentation in STEM is due to a lack of preparation and access to educational resources.
“Because STEM readiness and college access are shaped prior to college entry, STEM-focused enrichment programs for high school students are promising vehicles for reducing disparities in STEM degree completion,” the study authors wrote.
In the coming weeks, Butler plans to meet potential students halfway through with a “Code on the Court” event at local Brooklyn basketball courts offering free registrations to 10 students.
As the program grows, Butler says she looks forward to partnering with big tech companies like Google and Microsoft to reduce boundaries and doubts in students’ minds.
“If I could affect one child, we would affect hundreds of children,” Butler says.
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