One Pittsburgh woman is working hard to guarantee that the next generation’s Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates are not overlooked in her African-American community.
Shimira Williams’ long-lived love for STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) inspired her to launch TekStart Day Care, a place where young urban techies would be encouraged to pursue interests often considered uncool by friends and family.
“When you are an African-American kid who loves STEM, you’re a weird geek to the rest of the African-American kids in your low-income neighborhood,” Williams, 35, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“You’re weird to the [STEM-focused kids] you want to play with because they say, ‘We don’t see that many African-Americans around here,’ and you’re weird to the kids in your neighborhood because they say, ‘You like to play with the things white kids play with.'”
Now a fully licensed child care provider serving children ages 3 to 13, TekStart Day Care originally blossomed out of a day care center–owned by Williams’ mother–where Williams would serve as a temporary preschool teacher. The STEM-based program quickly gained steam, prompting Williams to upgrade her home to fit more children and transition from a satellite center to an independent operation.
So, how does a STEM-geared day care differ from your average day care?
For one, enrolled students can expect lots of Legos, 3-D puzzles, a “dramatic play bucket” filled with smart phones and keyboards and a box of broken tablets and other disassembled electronics waiting to be pieced back together. After-school activities consist of iPad interviews with STEM experts for the day care’s YouTube series “Lunch and Learn” and “What’s Cooking,” while field trips include visits to Google, the Pittsburgh auto show and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
As for her commitment to motivating African-American youth to pursue STEM careers, Williams is not alone. With an emphasis on STEM having become “the cornerstone of the national educational dialogue,” as scientist Dr. Kamau Bobb wrote, dozens of summits, conferences and other national initiatives have been organized to close the huge racial gap present in STEM degree programs and professions and to ensure the United States maintains global technological and economic dominance.
“Truly, STEM education should start in preschool. All preschoolers ever ask is why did that happen, what are you doing, what makes that happen, why, why, why. And they’ll keep trying something over and over again; if they find an area that interests them, at that age they love it,” said Williams.
“It’s our job as educators, business owners and parents to create an environment that helps them capture the data … as well as to have a conversation about what actually happened. Because that’s truly the scientific method.”
A business economics graduate and database analyst-turned-entrepreneur, Williams divides her days between running TekStart full-time and attending to clients through her home-based technical consulting business, Productivity LLC. Six students are currently enrolled at TekStart, which charges the state maximum of $20 per day.
The unconventional lessons taught by Williams have also gained followers in the early childhood technology and interactive media education fields.
“Teachers need more ideas that are not just putting a kid in front of a TV or showing them an app and hoping they learn. This is very intentional, and that’s what we’re driving for,” said Michael Robb, the director of education and research at Saint Vincent’s Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media.
Robb told Post-Gazette of plans to post a “Lunch and Learn” video filmed by a TekStart student on the center’s website as a best practice example for introducing tech learning at an early age.
While Williams’ noteworthy work as an early childhood STEM advocate earned her an invitation to a White House Business Council briefing, she has seen the biggest payoffs in TekStart students like TaSaun Harvey. The 11-year-old who has been enrolled at the STEM day care since first grade runs his own auto-mechanics blog and dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer, thanks to annual trips to the local auto show and an engineering fair.
“I hope people interested in STEM reach out to [Williams,]” TaSaun’s mother told the Post-Gazette. “You never know what’s hidden in this neighborhood. There are so many hidden gems out here.”