By Nicholas Ibarra | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Dr. Calvin Mackie is passionate about the world of science and he wants to share that passion with the world. The accomplished engineering professor founded STEM Nola in 2014 as a non-profit organization to expose, inspire and engage communities in learning about opportunities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).
Seven and a half years later, they’ve worked with nearly 100,000 kids, more than 20,000 families, and over 1,500 college students, STEM professionals, college interns, and volunteers. Organization officials plan to expand their STEM community partnerships to the Sacramento region with the help of local organizations and universities. However, the discussions are preliminary and there’s no timetable yet.
“Kids want to learn, but they want to learn on their own terms,” is Dr. Mackie’s greatest takeaway.
Dr. Mackie, 54, graduated Magna Cum Laude from Morehouse College in 1990 with a bachelor’s. degree in Mathematics while simultaneously graduating from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering. He subsequently earned his master’s and doctorate in Mechanical Engineering in 1996 from Georgia Tech.
Shortly thereafter, he became a professor at Tulane University where he acquired tenure. Dr. Mackie has been in the STEM profession for more than 30 years.
“I went into STEM because it gave me the opportunity to use my critical thinking skills, but it also gave me the freedom of thought,” he said. “I always wanted to create things, see things for what they could be rather than what they were.”
His journey through STEM was not easy. Dr. Mackie faced many hardships and moments of bias throughout his schooling and teaching career, simply because of the color of his skin. He remembers walking into a 6000 level mathematics course at Georgia Tech and a professor stopping and asking if he was in the right place.
Dr. Mackie is the first and only African American ever tenured in the history of the College of Engineering at Tulane University. In the 11 years that he was there, he never had a Black colleague in the engineering department. He was the president, vice president, “and janitor” of the Black Faculty Association.
“I was a one-man band. I was everything because I was by myself and that causes you to see things and feel things differently,” Dr. Mackie said.
When he first started as a faculty member, Dr. Mackie would come to work every day listening to 2Pac’s “Me Against The World” because he knew that that was the battle. And he would leave every day listening to Notorious B.I.G. ‘s “Who Shot Ya” because he knew that somebody was going to take “a shot” at him.
Dr. Mackie says he will never forget the first day of class when a White kid asked him if he was qualified to teach — he was the owner of four STEM degrees and Tulane felt that he was qualified, which is why they hired him. “I remember coming into buildings and White kids would ask me to show them my ID. I was a faculty member being policed by students,” he said.
For 12 years, he had to fight to show that the work he was producing was valuable. He had to fight to show that the money he was bringing in was worthy. He had to fight just to exist because people there, every day, questioned whether or not he belonged.
“The biases came in so many ways. But if I wasn’t prepared for it I wouldn’t be here today. I came, I saw, I conquered, but believe me, it was a fight and I was not to be deterred,” Dr. Mackie said.
Now, Dr. Mackie has transformed STEM Nola into STEM Global Action. His goal is to make STEM accessible and enjoyable to as many people and communities as possible.
It starts with the heart, then the head.
“We bring the knowledge to the kids. We package the knowledge in a way that they can understand it and receive it and then we engage them where they are,” Dr. Mackie said.
“If people have to leave their communities to get something of value, then that is society’s way of letting them know that they are not valued.”
STEM Global Action brings valuable people, technical capital and programming to low-resourced communities and lets them know that they value them and that these are the things they need for the 21st century. According to Dr. Mackie, once they realize that they like it or love it, then they can move forward and go deeper into it.
He says he follows a model similar to that of youth sports programs where young people are exposed at an early age. They go into communities and present STEM in a way that’s not overwhelming. A first, second, or third grader doesn’t need or want to know equations, he said, what they want to know is how the world works.
It all started when his son, Myles, came home one day after 3rd grade and proclaimed that he no longer liked science. Dr. Mackie would not accept his son’s dislike for the subject, so every Saturday he would take his two kids, Myles Ahmad and Mason Amir, into the garage and they would conduct experiments. They started doing STEM engagements from kits Dr. Mackie would order online.
Dr. Mackie said after a couple of months, his son Myles came home and said, “Daddy, my friends want to know how I know all of this.” Dr. Mackie said, “Did you tell them that you do experiments in the garage with your daddy?” He said, “Yeah, but my friends need this too.”
Dr. Mackie understood he needed to do more.
“Right then and there, we realized that we were keeping our time, talent, and treasure to ourselves and that we had something that the broader community could use,“ he said. “If he’s at the top school in the state and his friends are not exposed to this stuff, then just think about the kids that go to the other schools.”
Dr. Mackie and his wife, Tracy, took $100,000 of their own money and on December 14, 2013, held their first STEM Fest. It was a big community wide event where they brought out all types of STEM activities and had the kids participate.
They had hoped and planned for 100 kids that day. More than 350 kids and 150 parents and community members showed up. What started as one big event one Saturday of the month has now become in-school, after-school, and out-of-school programming.
“What we try to do is marshal the human capital back into communities. We believe that we’ve created a high-functioning STEM community. A high functioning STEM community is child-centered, adult-governed, and elder-ruled. Everything we do is through the lenses of what’s in the best interest of these children,” Dr. Mackie said.
And role models are very important.
“The kids not only get to meet and get to know me, but they also get to meet many other role models, which we call ‘real models’ — doctors, lawyers, surgeons, and electrical engineers,” he said.
“Robert Smith is the richest Black man in America worth between $5-8 billion. He has a bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Cornell, went on to business school, and now holds the gold standard Venture capital (VC) company for software. But kids don’t know about Robert Smith. Why? Because we promote athletes and entertainers who have to get very lucky and hit a lottery to otherwise become a billionaire,” he continued.
At 100 Black Men of America, they say, “If they can see it, they can be it.” STEM Global Action wants their kids and their community to know, touch, and feel who they are.
“They know that we came from where they are coming from and they can do it too,” Dr. Mackie said. “This is important because when they get into the classroom then this thing called STEM is now demystified and they have the confidence to know that they’ve done this before. Then they can challenge the teacher to present it to them in a way that they can understand it. That’s the way you keep kids interested. You meet them where they are physically, spiritually, and intellectually.”
Representation in terms of race and gender is also very important. Dr. Mackie noted that they make sure that they marshal women from different professions, backgrounds, and ethnicities before all of the children. He says boys need to see women in powerful positions just as much as girls do — just like other races need to see Black people in powerful positions.
They have moved towards licensing the model around the country. Right now, they have STEM partnerships in the following areas: STEM Baton Rouge, STEM Grambling — backed by Magic Johnson and his company Sodexo Magic, STEM Illinois — a partnership with the University of Illinois, STEM Saginaw, STEM Lafayette, STEM Little Rock, STEM Houston, STEM Charlotte, and STEM Tanzania in Africa.
They were also awarded a $3 million Department of Defense grant, which has allowed them to start STEM Gulf Coast, STEM Central Louisiana, and STEM Northern Louisiana where they engage in kids all along the Gulf of Mexico and Southern coasts in Gulfport; Biloxi, Mississippi; Pensacola, Alabama; Fort Polk in Alexandria; and Fort Walton Beach in Panama City, Florida.
Dr. Mackie hopes to bring the program to Sacramento in the future.
“The vision with STEM Global Action is to one day put this model in so many cities that we have a million low income and low resource kids doing STEM — hoping, dreaming, and believing that one day they can create something, create an economy, and be the next Robert Smith of that day — someone who creates enough wealth that they transform not only themselves, but their communities and will be able to impact generations to come,” he said. “STEM provides us with that possibility. STEM provides our children with that possibility. That’s why STEM is important.”
For more information on STEM Global Action, visit: https://stemglobalaction.com