Dr. Calvin Mackie’s STEM NOLA Helps Underserved Students See STEM Studies and Careers as Viable Options
by David S. Jackson, for The New Orleans Tribune
Somewhere in New Orleans right now, there is an eighth-grader running around orange cones at a feverish pace. He can already bench press more than 200 pounds and his quick-twitch muscles put him in an elite athletic category that makes him faster than 95 percent of his peers. Division I colleges have already scouted him and his name is on a recruitment spreadsheet in a laptop somewhere in the Southeastern Conference. College boosters have already reached out to someone in his family—extending gifts, free college trips and complimentary athletic gear.
Somewhere else in New Orleans, a fifth-grade girl is borrowing her mother’s phone so she can Google questions like, “What is space made of?” Her favorite subject is science and she loves watching Jeopardy on television. There are no sponsors. There are no boosters. No college recruiters typing her name in a spreadsheet.
Dr. Calvin Mackie, founder of STEM NOLA, a non-profit organization founded to expose, inspire and engage students in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM), has made it his mission to reverse these two scenarios.
“America is hyper focused on entertainment and sports,” Mackie says. “When a school like Tulane sacrifices its engineering program, yet it spends millions of dollars on building a football stadium uptown, it sends a clear message. You can come to this university. You can run that rock, dunk that ball, hit that pill and entertain us. But don’t you think about getting a science, technology, or engineering degree to save yourself and your community. Entertainers and sports figures will never save us, but scientists will.”
Mackie, who was recently honored with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Board’s Phoenix Award for his work to promote STEM, equates the need to increase STEM education in African-American and underserved communities to a social justice issue.
U.S. Rep Cedric Richmond presented the award to Mackie during a ceremony in Washington D.C.
“We have all watched Dr. Mackie truly transform New Orleans with his passion for STEM education initiatives. That is why I decided to honor him last month with a highly coveted Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Phoenix Award,” says Congressman Richmond. “It was only fitting that Dr. Mackie receive this illustrious award for his groundbreaking work inspiring the next generation of African-American engineers, mathematicians, doctors, cybersecurity professionals, and other leading STEM professions. He has created a model of STEM engagement that can serve as the blueprint for the rest of America. We are proud to have him represent New Orleans.”
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, African-American students still have low degree completion rates and low representation in STEM fields, even though the need for professionals and technical personnel is growing tremendously worldwide. African-American students are severely underrepresented in STEM majors compared to the overall college enrollment rate. African Americans received only seven percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and just four percent of doctorates in STEM.
“We are currently in an arms race with other countries to see who is going to create and develop artificial intelligence,” says Mackie. “My father had a saying, ‘Son, I would hate to have been the last guy selling horse saddles, when Henry Ford created the Model T.’ Part of our problem as a community is we tell our kids go to school, get an education and get a good job. Whereas, other people send their kids to school in STEM fields that allow them to create an entire economy for themselves. You can create something outstanding for yourself without asking anyone’s damn permission.”
According to Mackie, China produces almost 500,000 engineers each year, India produces more than 250,000 engineers, while America produces roughly 60,000 each year.
Personally Banking on STEM
Mackie graduated from Morehouse College earning a BS in mathematics in 1990, graduating magna cum laude and as member of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society. He was simultaneously awarded a BS in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech, where he subsequently earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in mechanical engineering in 1996. He served on the engineering faculty at Tulane University for 12 years.
But when Tulane ended its general engineering department, Mackie and his wife invested $100,000 of their own found the STEM NOLA program.
That investment has not only paid off for the students in New Orleans who enroll in the program, but it has also taken off in other parts of the state. Mackie has franchised the program in other parts of Louisiana (STEM ST. John and STEM Baton Rouge) and in other parts of the country (STEM Illinois in 2020).
Mackie just signed a deal with Magic Johnson’s company SodexhoMagic to launch a joint venture with the mogul and Grambling State University for a STEM program on the HBCU’s campus. Johnson has underwritten the program for the next 10 years.
To address this STEM education gap locally, Mackie partnered with the New Orleans Recreation Department Commission (NORDC) to host weekly STEM NOLA camps that facilitate learning with scientists of color for children in under served communities. STEM NOLA works with children from K-12 in chemistry, engineering, physics, biology, computer engineering and robotics. If students qualify for free or reduced lunch at school, they can participate free of charge.
Many of the program’s biggest advocates believe that STEM NOLA’S best asset is the program’s flexibility to be culturally and environmentally-relevant by using project-based activities and hands-on learning. The program uses college students, who are specializing in STEM-based studies along with corporate volunteers as instructors and mentors.
“One of the most rewarding things that has ever happened was after a STEM Saturday, a mother came up to me crying and she grabbed me and hugged me, and said, ‘How can my son come here and do this, and accomplish what he accomplishes here, but when he goes to school, he’s the problem. I knew it wasn’t my baby,’ ” recalls Mackie. “The point is that there are different learning styles, and usually the learning style that is seen in the classroom doesn’t always work for our Black boys. This is a place where they can BE. Where they work and are not patrolled, controlled or policed. We’ve seen our young boys and girls respond in a way that is absolutely amazing.”
Making Believers and Creating Achievers
Mackie said it is imperative to “mine” talented individuals who have an aptitude for science and technology at a young age and not wait until they start school.
“Nobody waited to give LeBron James a basketball when he was in ninth grade,” says Mackie. “By the time he was in high school with competitive sports, he was already on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”
Mackie and the science community may have already discovered the next “STEM LeBron” when they were introduced to young New Orleanian Anala Beevers, who is now 10 years old, when she was only four. Young Anala is a “gifted” learner; and with an IQ of 143, she is a member of the MENSA society.
Her father Landon Beevers says his family knew she was special. By four months old, she knew the alphabet. She could read before she was two years old, and she knew the names of all of the bones in the human skeleton by four years old. But he did not know how to nurture her gifts. He said there was nothing even close to STEM NOLA within the educational structure.
“She loves (STEM NOLA),” says Beevers. “She was always a bright child, but we didn’t know how to harness this. Then my wife saw Dr. Mackie on TV and we registered her. This was something that we wished we would have had growing up. It’s great! For a long time, sports were pushed on kids of color. But now she sees people that look like her who are doctors, scientists, engineers; and it has made all of the difference.”
Beevers described his daughter’s future as “limitless.”
“Before she attended STEM, she wanted to be a nurse. Now she knows that every science profession is open to her. She now contemplates time and space travel for months at a time,” says Beevers.
“The biggest thing that we’re dealing with in education is the belief gap,” said Mackie. “I don’t believe that this is a viable option for me. Most kids only get a chance to see a doctor when they are sick. With STEM our kids get to work with doctors together in white lab coats and dissect sheep hearts. They can then go to another station and build a sheep heart with a mechanical engineer. So not only can you see yourself as a doctor or engineer, you are working directly with those professionals.”
That is the challenge Mackie and STEM NOLA work to meet—getting young people, especially young Black students, to see the possibilities for their futures in STEM.
While it’s ideal to expose students to STEM programs like STEM NOLA as young as possible, Troy Privott, Jr., is proof that it is never too late to start.
Six years ago, Privott was an eager 15-year-old student when he walked into the very first STEM NOLA class. He heard Dr. Mackie speak at his mother’s job at Delgado and dreamed about working in the sciences. Privott’s mother Yvette Alexis said her son was so excited to meet him that he wore a suit.
Mackie said Privott walked into the program dreaming of designing fighter jets. After working with the STEM program until he graduated, Privott earned a scholarship to Howard University in Washington DC. Mackie stayed in touch with Privott.
“Their relationship grew and grew,” Alexis said while holding back tears. “I saw how much he was willing to invest in my son! When in DC, he would always have lunch with him. If you’re looking for rainbows and unicorns, he won’t give you that. Being a Black man from New Orleans, you’re taught that they all end up in the same place. But he saw a difference in my son.”
Today Privott is an engineer at Lockheed Martin with a top security clearance.
“Do you know what he’s doing now?” Mackie asked. “He’s designing fighter jets. Why? Because he believed he could.”