Atlantic City Science Fair Hopes to Shrink ‘Digital Divide’ Among Youth of Color

This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

ATLANTIC CITY – How do you hold a citywide science fair in the middle of a pandemic?

Lots of planning and using three different sites, according to Mia Williams, STEAM director of the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club.

It wasn’t like Williams wasn’t facing enough obstacles, already working in a city where students would have limited access to technology and funds able to purchase them. Despite the resort city’s gambling riches, Atlantic County is ranked 19th out of the state 21 counties in per capital income. Atlantic City ranked No. 672 out of all New Jersey’s municipalities.

Despite that, in a little more than a year, in the face of coronavirus pandemic, Williams has building a program that has even caught the attention of the likes of billionaire Apple CEO Tim Cook. The science fair, which will be held at the Boys & Club three Atlantic City locations on Wednesday (March 31) will showcase some of her student’s best work.

“I don’t know how to do anything small,” Williams told Front Runner New Jersey last week with a laugh, pointing out this will be the first time that all three of Atlantic City’s Boys & Girls Club sites will be involved in the science fair simultaneously. “When I told our CEO and unit director  that I wanted to this citywide, they looked at me and like, ‘Are you serious?’ I said we can do this.”

Citywide Science Fair

Williams said the younger students will take part a “more traditional” part of the science fair at is buildings on 1010 Drexel Drive and 317 N. Pennsylvania Avenue from 3-5 p.m. The science fair at the Teen Center will run from 6-7 p.m.

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“At Drexel and Chelsea Clubs, you’re see more of an old school fair where kids have specific projects. The middle school students who have made their own robots along with movie trailer and narratives to go with the robots.

Three robots students are working on at the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club STEAM program. Photo courtesy of Mia Williams

“In the design lab, older high school age kids will show off their graphic designs. They have made personal brands with abode illustrator and some will talk about their photography and logo work they’ve done throughout the community,” Williams said.

A Critical Time

Such events like the Boys & Girls Club science fair comes at a critical time during the pandemic for local teens. Nate Evans, Jr., the Boys & Girls Club Teen Center director, said in his conversations with youth, some have been faced with the “resounding issue has been burnout and boredom.”

One girl works on iPad at the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Team Design Lab. Photo courtesy Mia Williams

“It’s very understandable yet it’s also very dangerous,” Evans said. “Many students have been plagued with severe mental health issues during this time. At the Boys & Girls Club we do have online programming but we do our best to engage our members in-person. We have been blessed to be one of the few after school facilities to actually be open during the pandemic to in-person activities and programs.

“With that being said a new approach to educating and engaging needs to be created and this should keep educators and those individuals teaching virtually, on their toes. This requires for everyone to be resourceful which is great because real personal growth comes from being resourceful,” Evans said.

While the pandemic has created challenges throughout the year, like how many students Williams can teach at one time and even how many students can participate in the science fair in one particular setting, other changes have been more positive in nature. Many of her students African American and Latino, a diversity mixed that is desperately needed in the tech world currently.

Crushing Digital Divide

While acknowledging it is impossible to know just how much the pandemic played in rekindling the interest of your young, mostly minority group of youths interest in the tech field, but she has certainly seen some mental light bulbs going off.

One of the robots worked on my student during the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club STEAM program. Photo courtesy of Mia Williams

“With the push of them needing to be on devices for everything, it does create a certain level of awareness in how they are using the devices,” she said. “In a lot of the lessons, I will take screen grabs from Snapchat or Instagram, in arenas they are accustomed to, and align that with the lesson I’m teaching. It helps them see what they are seeing have been tailored to them.

“I can genuinely say I can see the connection and how the pandemic has exposed them more to technology but I feel like the education I’m providing makes them more aware of the technology and how the marketing aspect it more aligned for them. I’ve given them an education to see the world through a different time a lens. They are living life differently and differently,” Williams added.

Apple Store to Tech Teacher

In fact, Williams has become so connected with the program that in December she left her job a graphics arts teacher for the Atlantic City Board of Education to work as the Boys & Girls Club full time director of its STEAM program. She had been working part-time before.

STEAM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, with the addition of the arts to the traditional STEM curriculum.

Young people attend the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club Design Lab. Photo courtesy of Mia Williams

Jacqui Kennedy, one of Williams’ teenage Design Lab creators, said she sees things in an entirely different way since taking part in the STEAM classes.

“Last year, I woke up every morning went through my morning routine and caught the bus to school,” Kennedy said. “On the way I would stare out the window and see street signs, buildings, streets, billboards, and other vehicles. What makes this business card and logo more attractive? How did a graphic design transform into a tangible object?

“Now when I catch the bus to school, I see how the street signs, buildings, and billboards relate to what I’ve learned at the club. Since joining this program, I have gained insight to what it means to see the world through graphic design. The power to create,”  Kennedy continued.

Apple donated computers and iPads to the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club as part of its Community Education Initiative to support creativity, coding, and career development programming. Apple has been working with the Atlantic City club and other as around the country to help them explore the full potential of their new devices and begin to integrate Apple coding and creativity programming into their curricula.

Tim Cook is Watch

Atlantic City’s efforts won praise from Cook, who mentioned the club in a tweet back in November.

“[The Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club] and their community supporters are changing lives by empowering kids with creative new learning opportunities,” Cook said in the Twitter post. “Apple is honored to support [Boys & Girls Clubs] across the U.S. with technology to help students push the boundaries of what’s possible.”

This is time Williams first connection with Apple. She worked for the Apple store before becoming a schoolteacher, instructing new purchasers Apple products how the use their devices.

“I worked four years at the Apple store in Atlantic City,” Williams said. “It’s been like putting together pieces of a puzzle. I would not have been as good of a teacher without the presentation skills I learned while working at the Apple store. I would have been as good of a teacher for my students here without teaching 10 years in Atlantic City schools and exposing our kids to the world of technology.”

Stephanie Koch, the CEO of the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club, praised Williams to Apple.

“Mia is a professional role model,” Koch said of Williams in an article that appeared on Apple’s website last November. “She shows what’s possible when you bring Apple products and an Apple-trained professional to a community. The kids are engaged by her, and now having this cutting-edge hardware by her side, it excites them even more.”

Now Williams teaches, engages, encourage and pushes students at the clubs STEAM classes, outfitted by Apple, on a daily basis. While she is thrilled being able to show the community what her students have learned in the upcoming science fair, which she hopes will be an annual event, she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself.

“I’m just trying to get through Wednesday,” she said with a healthy laugh when asked if she started to plan for next year yet.

So will everyone else as classes like hers  continue to shrink the digital divide for young people in minority communities.

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