Each morning, your alarm on your phone sounds and you roll over in bed to switch off the device, flipping on a lamp at your bedside table. You scroll through that phone and check your calendar — a full list of the day’s events — you head to the kitchen, open the fridge and grab breakfast just as your automatic coffee machine cycles on and pours you a fresh cup.
You cram down your breakfast, take a shower, get dressed and hop in the car or rush to the train for your commute to work.
Every single step of the way, the decisions you make and the actions you take —all seemingly insignificant — are inspired by science, produced by an engineer and involve some sort of mathematical operation.
This is what United Way of Greater Atlanta President and CEO Milton J. Little, Jr. brought to the attention of the audience inside an AT&T ballroom in Midtown Atlanta a few miles from Fox Theatre on Nov. 19.
“There’s nothing that you can do in this world that doesn’t require science,” Little says. “There’s no clothes to wear, there’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing you drive — almost nothing we touch that isn’t the product of someone who learned to invest in science.”
United Way of Greater Atlanta has invested in science over the past year. On Nov. 19, United Way hosted its inaugural STEMUp Youth Maker Competition at AT&T.
The STEMUp program’s director and Senior Director of Youth Development at United Way Tricia Crossman says the Youth Maker Competition is about “giving young people the opportunity to give their ideas” in order to solve problems their communities face using Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Those ideas were presented to a round of judges via video submissions and then whittled down to nine finalists.
For this competition, students had to create something “solution-oriented,” Crossman says. The submission had to be realistic, could be successfully implemented, had to be youth-led and had to be creative and innovative.
Crossman says the students also had to consider a “social responsibility” component.
“Young people have great ideas, and we often don’t tap into them to help us make our world better,” Crossman says. “This is our inaugural competition, but it is our hope that we’ll be able to grow this competition and have it every single year for young people in our metro region.”
Crossman says the competition requirements were released at the end of August to schools in the Greater Atlanta region, and despite the quick turnaround, there were 78 submissions and 189 youth participants.
Twenty-four percent of those students were high school-aged, and 30 percent of the youth lived in low or very Child Well-Being areas, according to United Way’s Child Well-Being Map, Crossman says.
United Way of Greater Atlanta saw two years ago after its strategic planning meeting that the zip code a child lived in too often determined the fate of that child.
United Way saw that, statistically, because of what zip code a child was born into, he or she was handed a disadvantage beyond their control. Through a set of 14 family, community and child measures, including things like eighth-grade math proficiency and third-grade reading scores, United Way calculated at the time a child well-being score of 58.9.
On May 9, 2019, officials announced the score had improved in two years to 61.8. That equates to a change in the lives of more than 82,000 children in the region living in low or very low child well-being.
In addition to the Youth Maker Competition, Crossman says United Way funds an initiative called “Get Connected,” which is a digital literacy program for children and their parents.
The nine finalists for Youth Maker were comprised of five high school teams and four middle school, Crossman says.
The finalists had to pitch their projects to judges in a “Shark Tank-style” demonstration before a winner was selected in front of the crowd at AT&T.
The finalists had run through those demonstrations for hours, and the time was quickly approaching for the winners to be announced.
Little made his way to the stage prior to the announcement, and he was presented a $230,000 check from AT&T’s Director of Federal Public Affairs Yvette Pugh. The check would fund “Community Impact and STEM” projects at United Way. AT&T supports the Chief Science Officer (CSO) program, which seeks to enhance the workforce and employability skills of student CSOs and their peers.
“We believe in the work United Way is doing,” Pugh said. “We have 20,000 employees in Georgia. We live and work in this community and want to be a part of the great work you are doing to move our communities forward.”
The STEM Youth Maker Competition is a great example of ways to move these communities forward.
“We know job trends in the Greater Atlanta region are going to require more science and math in order for young people to compete in the workforce of today and tomorrow,” Crossman says.
STEM IS EVERYWHERE
Each of the finalists and their school’s sponsors rushed to their tables with Chick-fil-A boxed lunches, eagerly awaiting the final results while nibbling on chicken sandwiches.
The judges were made up of local business owners and sponsors — the project was sponsored by Cox Enterprises, AT&T, General Motors and the African-American Partnership Affinity Group at United Way. They were tasked with selecting one middle school and high school winner each, but narrowing down to one each was more difficult than it seemed.
Ultimately, there were two winners each from those categories. In the middle-school division, Amariyahu Edmunds and Regie Ingram each won, and in high school division the two winners were the Forest Park High School Team and then Madison Kenney. Manitca Kheim, Helen Tran, Sharron Van, Evan Minor and Lazaro Valle-Reynoso made up the Forest Food Initiative.
The Forest Food Initiative is a hydroponics system and greenhouse that would address a lack of access to produce in Forest Park, Clayton County.
“Our goal was to create a hydroponics system and address a food desert in our community,” says Lazaro Valle-Reynoso, a Forest Park High School student. “So, what is a food desert? It is an area where people can’t reach food and fresh produce. I had a teammate who said she had to drive 30 minutes to buy fresh produce.”
Helen Tran said the Forest Food Initiative started through the CSO program, but once the team learned of the Youth Maker Competition, they pulled in additional members to form a team.
“We had a PowerPoint, and I brought in a hydroponics prototype,” Tran said. “We went over the budget, the goals and who we were collaborating with, and we shared with the judges what living in a food desert looks like.”
Tran says her family can only find certain foods by traveling 30 minutes or more one way, and she says this isn’t uncommon at her school.
Valle-Reynoso says the garden and greenhouse project addresses this issue.
Kenney established previously a RoboChicks program at the Andrew and Walter Young YMCA to help “get girls interested in STEM.”
“I started coaching them,” Kenney says. “When I saw the United Way grant, I applied ASAP because I wanted to get more funding to coach more girls and, at the time, I got a request to do an all-boys team as well.”
Kenney says her interest in STEM started when she was 8 years old.
“I got my most experience hands-on,” she says.
Like Kenney, Edmunds also first became interested in STEM while he was in elementary school. He says he was intrigued by the opportunity to build something on his own.
He developed his “Code Flow” program to generate more interest in STEM among younger kids.
“A lot of kids in my school, specifically third-graders, aren’t excited about STEM,” he says. “It can be fun. I want to take 10 students, and I want to buy them [robots] that you can code and get them to perform specific tasks in multiple obstacle courses, and my hope is that they will get excited about STEM.”
Edmunds loved the idea that as a kid he could learn how to “code and build stuff.”
“I built a robot out of a fan with, like, air pumps and air pressure, and when I saw what I could do, I said, ‘This looks really cool,’” Edmunds says. “STEM is everywhere! There’s nothing that you can touch that hasn’t been involved with science.”
Ingram also loved how STEM allowed him to open his mind and create something of his own. Ingram developed a joggers’ belt that he presented to the judges.
“I started with an experiment in the science fair to see if I could make electricity with magnets and coils of wire,” Ingram says, “and I wanted to make a product for this idea.”
Ingram identified a problem he saw that would allow him to flesh out this idea and address a need in his community. The belt is made of nylon and fits around a jogger’s waist. As the jogger bounces up and down, the magnets inside of a tube bounce up and down hitting a coil of wires attached to an LED light. The light begins to flash, which signals to drivers on the road that a jogger is on the sidewalk or passing in front of them.
“There are so many jogger injuries that happen each year,” Ingram says. He now plans to turn the Youth Maker grant into 30 prototypes he can share with his fellow classmates on his middle school track team.
The competition’s success stems —no pun intended— from an overall need in the community to generate interest around technology, which is where a trained workforce is needed in the Greater Atlanta region.
“The number of technology jobs far outpace the people that can fill those jobs,” Crossman says. “Many of the companies in our region are going out of state and country to get those jobs filled. We can change that. STEM programming for young people and STEM education is a critical part of making that happen.”
For more information for STEM programming and United Way of Greater Atlanta’s work, visit www.unitedwayatlanta.org.