Main menu

we can.


By Ray Roa

Ray Roa writes about music in beautiful Tampa, Florida. His work has appeared in Creative Loafing, Tampa Bay Times, Daily Beast and Consequence of Sound.

How this STEM program is empowering boys to put their world-changing ideas into action.

Jean Nicoleau talked about her student, Tyghe Crocket-Arias, and the transformation he underwent after his first summer with Verizon Innovative Learning as if she was describing two different people. One version of Tyghe had an energy and attitude that was disruptive at times. Prior to Verizon Innovative Learning, Nicoleau had known Tyghe for several years and watched him struggle in school. During this past school year, his grades, confidence and sense of responsibility all improved. New Tyghe was someone with a purpose and someone teachers wanted in their classrooms. 

Tyghe returned to Verizon Innovative Learning as one of more than 60 boys accepted to participate in a three-week immersive program held at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. It’s one of 29 such programs occurring across the U.S. this summer geared at reaching African-American and Hispanic middle school boys.

Students in the program are given access to world-class technology—from 3D printers to autonomous robots to drones—and asked to solve some of the globe’s biggest problems. It’s all part of the Verizon Innovative Learning mission to provide free technology, free internet access and hands-on learning experiences to under-resourced students to help them get the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.

Now in its second summer at FIU, the program not only increases students’ ability with math and science, according to a 2017 study of program participants, but also motivates the young men to a new kind of confidence that carries into the school year; putting the boys on a path to build brighter futures. They are in a better position to change the outcomes of their own generation, and the ones that follow them. When asked about why they believe they can change the world, participants like Jonathan Montero, British Wilkerson and Gideon Joseph all had the same response: “Because we can.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“We have the power to help others.”

This is what Jonathan Montero, 7th grade, said as he sat just a few feet from a 3D printer that will take his design for a spoon to assist tremor patients and turn it into a prototype for his team’s STEM project. Like the rest of the boys in the program, Montero was bused in from a surrounding Miami neighborhood and fed a free breakfast before the day began.

At home, Montero—who is the son of Puerto Rican and Dominican parents—used to watch his abuelo (“grandpa”) struggle to eat as his hands shook from tremors. The program let Montero get his own hands on technology not readily available at school, and now he’s the president of his after school robotics club. Being in close contact with the tools for three weeks changed Jonathan’s outlook on how he can create positive change for patients like his grandpa. “The [program] helps us turn our ideas into a real life thing.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“It's just a different level.”

Marilyn Dieppa, an instructor at the program, spoke about the tools that Verizon Innovative Learning exposes the boys to. Some of the boys may have been aware of the technology, and some maybe even dabbled in it, but none of them had experienced this much activity packed into such a compact frame of time. 

The program’s structure—which incorporates an element of competitiveness—allowed the boys’ confidence to bloom with each successful attempt at solving complex robotic and coding problems. It encouraged shy boys to come out of their shells and work with others on projects they could not complete alone.

“The structure is essential, and it’s engaging,” she said. “When the kids engage in the learning environment, they engage elsewhere.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“I need to help them.” 

One of the boys who engaged well beyond the borders of the program is 13-year-old British Wilkerson. Troubleshooting the 3D printer or autonomous robots was the game-changer that helped British adopt the belief that he has the ability to turn designs in his head into tangible, real world solutions.

He preferred the program’s collaborative, hands-on approach to problem solving over the instruction he gets at school, but he was also focused on the challenge that waited for him once it was done. “I’m going to Puerto Rico on a trip to help my family with hurricane relief. I can build simple structures,” he said. “I need to help them.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“We should be working to help others.”

Gideon Joseph, whose parents are Dominican, also spoke about the maladies of the modern world but his observations and the program’s

intensive curriculum birthed a question inside of his own consciousness. “There are so many negative things… so I wonder. ‘Why are we trying to help ourselves?’” he said. “We should be working to help others.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“It was life-changing.”

Gideon’s STEM project turned food waste into electricity, and his eyes lit up when a similar project came up in the Flying Classroom lecture. Captain Barrington Irving—a Miami boy who grew up under the shadows of the very planes flying over campus—shared observations from his own world travels. At the age of 23, Irving went on a 97-day, 30,000-mile journey that made him the youngest person and the first African-American pilot to fly solo around the world in a single engine airplane. 

Like many of these boys, Irving had aspirations of being a professional athlete, but one encounter with a pilot changed his idea of what he could become if he pursued a career in STEM.

Immersing middle school boys in an environment filled with STEM curriculum and like-minded explorers creates a more open mindset, and it’s the greatest benefit of Verizon Innovative Learning according to Irving. ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“They can change the world.”

Monique Ross, a researcher and assistant professor of computer science at FIU, said that it’s paramount to maintain unique pathways to STEM after the summer program, so her student-mentors see the boys several times throughout the school year as part of the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative. Ross’ study of the student-mentors after the program’s first summer revealed an increased desire to participate in altruistic opportunities, with some saying that the life-changing experience inspired them to take more command of their own lives and also better influence the lives of future generations.

The boys are shown that they can achieve lofty goals when they set a plan, execute, refine and repeat. Armed with minimal resources, the boys solve simple dilemmas—like helping tired parents care for younger siblings—all the time when they’re not at the program or school.

Being at FIU showed the boys that their inherent problem-solving skills could also land them jobs and give them opportunities to change the world. It also challenged them to change their approach to school. ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“He did a complete 180.”

Jean Nicoleau, chaperone and teacher, said this about one of her students, Tyghe Crocket-Arias. Nicoleau has known Tyghe for several years and watched him struggle through the sixth grade before going to Verizon Innovative Learning in between seventh and eighth grades. The transformation was nearly tangible.

“He was like, ‘You know, I gotta get my act together,’" Jean said, adding that Tyghe stopped taking nonsense from kids who act up in class (the very type of kid Tyghe was before the program). “He became a leader instead of that kid in the classroom. Academically his grades shot up because he feels like he's accomplishing it on his own. The teachers, they talk about how much Tyghe's group is goofy, but does well academically. 

He was the first one asking about getting a spot saved for [the program].”

Tyghe, who is of Brazilian descent, helped some of the first year students in the program with their own struggles and created an environment that embraces learning. “I encourage them to be more brave,” Tyghe said of the shy boys. “[Just] say your questions.”

Nicoleau has even been able to use statistics to get Tyghe thinking outside of his dream of being a basketball player. He’s got a “better chance of getting struck by lightning,” so she and Tyghe started to think about where he can take an interest in math, possible careers and magnet schools. “So there he is at a magnet fair talking to schools, weighing the pros and the cons,” Nicoleau said.” ♦

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

“I have a belief that I can do it.”

Another transformation happened within Justin Teodoro, who was a shy, quiet kid at school. In his second year in the program, Justin came out of his shell during the program last year and has grown into a more confident person who leads his peers during activities like 3D printing. 

The program has even taught Justin to work through the more complex problems that the robotics exercises present. “I use my mind to fix problems that I have,” he said. “If something gets hard then I stop for a minute, and then go back and then take my time. I have a belief that I can do it.” ♦

they can.

(Photos: Octavio Jones)

Sowing those slivers of self-confidence is just part of what Verizon Innovative Learning does for these middle-school boys as they enter the most crucial stages of their development.

“Right now is that critical pathway, they aren't completely deciding, but they are eliminating career options,” Ross said, reiterating that most of these boys solve problems every day. “STEM jobs just mean that you love to solve problems.”

The informal learning environment, where mistakes are embraced and corrected through practice, let the boys further develop their problem-solving skills in a hands-on setting that exposed them to groundbreaking technology.

At Verizon Innovative Learning, STEM and the countless mini-victories the boys create for themselves, became the norm. A new world of possibilities was opened when they set their hands on the robotics and 3D printers. Captain Barrington Irving illustrated it best when asked about what his own peers thought when he expressed an interest in flying airplanes.

“The first thing they said to me? ‘Black people don't fly planes,’” Irving said. The idea wasn’t even on his football teammates’ radars because they’d never been exposed to it despite living just two miles from an airport runway.

“So to submerse a child in an environment where you have other like-minded explorers around STEM — because that's what these kids are doing, they're exploring — it's significant because now what you've created is an environment of free thinking. STEM becomes the norm. The things that Verizon engineers and technologists do every day — that's normal. You want to cultivate that.”

Those seeds were planted at the Verizon Innovative Learning program. They were cared for and sent out to walk around the world hand-in-hand with the idea that the solutions to the globe’s biggest problems are just around the corner. These boys left FIU believing that they are going to change the world.

Because they can.