Ground-breaking STEM middle school teaches inner-city students how to become technology entrepreneurs

STEM-schoolToo often educators have heard stories of brilliant students like Mark Zuckerberg dropping out of school to get a head start in the technology industry, eager to become entrepreneurs in an economy that can’t get enough innovation. But one middle school is trying to change that by creating a school program that incubates future IT professionals.

The Howard Middle School of Mathematics and Science, a non-selective school run by Howard University in Washington, D.C., has launched a Startup Middle School program, which teaches inner-city students how to develop the technology of the future, as well as how to market it and develop financial savvy.

(Next page: What makes Howard Middle School unique?)

The middle school—100 percent are students of color, 70 percent are from households that qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 66 percent of students enter the school performing below grade level—has already boasted incredible results, with more than 90 percent of its students going to college in a city with the lowest graduation rate in the nation.

Yohance Maqubela, executive director of the middle school, credits the success of the school to a mix of qualified teachers, early intervention, a belief in every student’s ability, and a focus on STEM subjects.

Yohance Maqubela. Credit: Hector Telford.

Yohance Maqubela. Credit: Hector Telford.

“STEM is the international language of the future,” said Maqubela. “In poor communities of color, 80 percent of students are taught by teachers who are either not credentialed in the progression, or do not have a background in the subject area that they are teaching…since the STEM subject areas are both cumulative and content-rich, early deficiencies in these disciplines are the most difficult to make up. Thus, it is vital for us to have a STEM focus in preparing our students for outstanding life outcomes.”

In the middle school, students study a range of STEM subjects, but Maqubela says the key is to make the connection between what is taught in-class to what students love, like video games and social networking.

For example, along with core classes, as well as a focus on arts, humanities, and physical education, students can choose a class or activity that interests them during an extra period of school, where they can work on practical applications of the STEM disciplines, such as solar cars, robotics, and video gaming.

Students can also study:

  • Green building techniques in architecture
  • Video game design
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Digital media
  • The mathematics of finance
  • Careers in medicine
  • Computer science
  • Aerospace engineering
  • Forensic science
  • Microsoft Office certification

Maqubela notes that finance has become a hot subject among students recently, thanks to not only the economic crisis and the awareness that it’s important to be independent and financially stable later in life, but also because of the examples of young Silicon Valley moguls.

“With the continued growth of the various ‘dot.com’ and young IT billionaires, students see these people living a dream existence at such a young age, and they want the same things for themselves,” he said.

(Next page: STEM mixed with business savvy)

Going one step further

Beyond taking core STEM subjects and learning more about technology innovation, the Startup Middle School will offer more entrepreneurial classes, such as marketing and fiscal management.

“Currently the involvement of people of color in the technological wave is largely on the periphery,” said Maqubela. “We make up a huge percentage of the consumers of the various prevalent technologies, yet few of us are the creators of this technology. Currently, less than 3 percent of the IT workforce in Silicon Valley is black or Latino.”

Through the Startup Middle School, educators are hoping to “demystify” the backend of technology for students, as well as provide them the skills to not only create the tools of the future, but turn their ideas into viable business ventures.

Students learning anatomy.

Students learning anatomy.

“We want them to feel like they have ownership of a seat at the table of innovation,” explained Maqubela. “Specifically, they should be able to create, enhance, and manipulate digital tools…by learning what it takes to bring their ideas to life, and then make them real for the greater society through business lets them know that life does not have to dictate to them, but rather, they can dictate their life.”

The program pairs students with computer science teachers and leading experts in such fields as marketing, crowd fundraising, communications, fiscal management, and budgeting.

Currently, students are working on projects that include:

  • A budgeting tool for teens when they get their first job
  • An app that fights cyber bullying by “sanitizing” individuals’ social media accounts
  • A tool that helps young people always dress fashionably

A multi-year assessment component is built into the larger program model; and for the current school year, Startup School is already slated to work with the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Urban League to form an after-school program for the population they serve.

Students presenting a project.

Students presenting a project.

In addition to funding the pilot of the Startup Middle School program last year, Microsoft, Comcast, and The Washington Post will also provide a portion of the year-long program for 2013-14. However, this support does not cover the full program cost, and the school is still actively looking to expand its network of partners.

“Nationally, we all have to stand up and demand that no child be neglected and written off,” Maqubela said. “Over our eight years, we’ve demonstrated, time and again, that with the proper supports, resources, and dedicated faculty and staff, all students will soar. We are actively looking to work together in partnership with others–schools, institutions, corporations, and more–who share this core belief.”