Hampton Roads students get ready to compete in international STEM competition

Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

A group of teenage boys saw problems in their community — and wanted to be a part of the solution.

Local nonprofit Unreasonable Kids College has been working with the teens in the TRUTH STEM Entrepreneurship Club to think outside the box and “smash assumptions” about young Black men. The students, ages 12 to 15, come from Southside STEM Academy at Campostella and came up with plans to address problems such as cyber bullying, gun violence, homelessness and environmental issues.

Ateba Whitaker, founder of Unreasonable Kids College, described the teens’ ideas as “more than what some adults dream to do.”

The kids were split into four groups to tackle problems from different perspectives. The categories were aviation engineering, cybersecurity engineering, biomedical engineering and environmental engineering. Overall, there were five solutions to real-world problems the boys came up with that they presented Dec. 17 in the #20Strong Community Pitch Event at Nauticus.

Three were selected by community members in the audience for the pitch event. These were Ecoloo, the recycled shipping container idea, Parent Guard, an artificial intelligence program used to combat cyberbullying, and Dusopanel, a device to eliminate carbon dioxide poisoning and aircraft noise pollution.

Going through their presentations the day before they were to be delivered, the boys were excited — a maybe a little nervous — to share their ideas and see where they lead.

“This one opportunity can lead to many more,” Amari H., age 14, said before the pitch event. He is being identified by his first name at the request of Unreasonable Kids College.

The day before the big event, Unreasonable Kids College founder, Ateba Whitaker and Nate Sandel, director of education and community engagement, and others were in the theater providing tips and praise for how much the boys had improved over the past several weeks.

For Whitaker, seeing that growth was an emotional moment, and she celebrated through happy tears — something the boys made sure community members knew about in the #20Strong Community Pitch event.

“It touched me because what I saw in that presentation Saturday was a manifestation of what I believed to be true,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said in a press release she is committed to showing people that these boys “are not a hinderance to the Norfolk community but the solution.” The non-profit recently received a mini grant from the Norfolk Police Foundation as part of its anti-violence campaign to support the STEM and entrepreneurship club. The partnerships the group has, including Nauticus which hosted the pitch event and provided a space for the kids to practice.

“It is really important to have a spark under these young men and let them know that the potential they have is boundless,” Sandel said.

Sandel said Nauticus also has a partnership with the Southside Stem Academy as part of his imitative when first coming into his position earlier this summer. Students in the school also benefited from outreach programs through Nauticus.

These TRUTH STEM kids are not just trying to be problem-solvers in their community. They are working toward competing in the Conrad Challenge, an international STEM competition that inspires innovation and entrepreneurship in teens around the world.

Nancy Conrad, the Conrad Foundation’s founder, established the challenge in honor of her late husband, Charles “Pete” Conrad, who was the third man to walk on the moon. Up there, she said, he and the other astronauts “didn’t see borders or boundaries” on Earth and that is part of what inspired the challenge.

“The more we think about the world as a little place where we live together, and the more we see it without borders and boundaries, I think the more we can move toward a global sense of the world,” Conrad said.

The foundation also showed support for these students in the club by providing laptops to each so that technology was not a hinderance to that global connection. This was done in partnership with Dell.

The three projects selected Dec. 17 are moving forward to be entered into the Conrad Challenge. The final event, if the Norfolk teens move forward in the challenge, is in April at Space Center Houston. The Conrad Foundation will also assist in getting the students to Houston for the event.

The top scoring teams for for each category are named Pete Conrad Scholars, joining a global community of like-minded innovators, as well as prizes such as scholarships. The teams also could be eligible to patent their ideas.

Kelsey Kendall, kelsey.kendall@virginiamedia.com