For just a moment, before going out to quarterback her Lego robot as only she can, 12-year-old Ja’lyn Lewis imagined the children like her who were missing.
Children of color.
Children in urban schools, where many come from low-income families.
If only more children could get the same spark that has charged her with dreams of engineering and science, she said.
“You can help us think in a different way,” she said. “You can help us look at life and science in a new way.”
Ja’lyn and her schoolmates on the Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology robotics team were one of several school groups showing off their projects in science, technology, engineering and math Thursday at the STEM UP Kansas City rally at Union Station.
There she was, a star, with classmates urging her to the controls to put her robot on display.
But there was an urgent message in why organizers of the event — the KC STEM Alliance and Time Warner Cable — made sure the Banneker team was part of the showcase.
The award-winning robotics team didn’t exist for any Banneker students ahead of Ja’lyn’s fifth-grade class a year ago.
That was before William Wells became the school’s technology director and finally gave Banneker someone to take on the role of robotics coach.
That was before his wife, Courtney Wells, a Hewlett-Packard program manager, won a $5,000 prize in Time Warner’s Connect a Million Minds education support program to help launch Banneker’s team.
Ja’lyn knows she is lucky. Her father and mother helped prod her interest in technology since she was 6, she said.
She timed it right too, coming of age for the Lego robotics competition just as Banneker, after several years of failed starts, got its program going.
“I want to go to Princeton or Harvard and learn IT (information technology),” she said. “Some people think we’re too young to know things, but I hope not.”
The STEM UP rally kicked off a renewed recruiting campaign to link more individuals and businesses with schools to help mentor students and support STEM programs.
More than 15,000 students in the area are participating in the national engineering program, Project Lead the Way, said Laura Loyacono of the KC STEM Alliance. Many of them are among the thousands in robotics competitions and other special programs.
But all schools need more mentors and supporters for the expensive programs in fields where technology is constantly racing ahead of them.
The programs in particular have trouble reaching “underserved” populations predominantly in rural areas and the central cities, she said.
The call for help doesn’t just go out to people in STEM careers.
The Black Family Technology Awareness Association in Kansas City not only recruits STEM professionals, but reaches out to all parents and community members.
The organization has been holding training sessions for parents to get them past their fears so they can learn right along with their children.
“We need all kinds of volunteers,” said George Walker, an AT&T technician who leads the technology awareness association. “We tell parents from the beginning we want them involved.”
Walker’s wife, Mildred, who did not have a technology background, took the message to heart and now coaches an all-girls robotics team after school at the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center.
“I jumped in,” she said. “I got help when I needed it.”
When community members and parents take deeper interest in the STEM programs, schools are more likely to find ways to keep the programs alive and growing.
“If it drops, it is missed,” Loyacono said. “And industry shows up” to support programs in need.
Before he began coaching Banneker’s robotics team, William Wells went to the FIRST Robotics international championships in St. Louis in 2011 and saw what was possible.
The sight was thrilling and sobering.
Along with the thousands of U.S. students, he saw students “from Israel, Qatar, Turkey, China and Japan,” he said.
They were working together across language barriers, in the spirit of a competition that encourages collaboration and the sharing of resources and ideas.
“It was world peace out there,” he said.
But it was also sad, he added.
“I saw few inner-city kids.”
Over his shoulder, Banneker students guided their robots through their paces, including Ja’lyn, whose chief influences include scientist Isaac Newton and contemporary girl band Mindless Behavior.
Wells was thinking not just of her and the rest of Banneker’s students but of those children who weren’t here but could be when he said, “You know, they’re bright kids.”