An Usher's New Look participant experiments with VR technology (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.).
Participants in Usher's New Look learn coding exercises the organization's Spark Lab at Morehouse College (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.)
Participants in Usher’s New Look learn coding exercises the organization’s Spark Lab at Morehouse College (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.)

The kids from Usher’s New Look (UNL) have a chance to tap into their hidden talents using STEAM education exercises through the nonprofit organization’s newly developed Spark Lab. The outreach effort co-founded by the best-selling, Grammy award-winning entertainer recently hosted one of its first day-long programs at Morehouse College, igniting and empowering youth through hands-on product demonstrations, interactive classes and town hall lectures facilitated by tech executives, community organizers and groundbreaking scientists of color.

“New sparks can lead to potential career paths,” states UNL’s Global Ambassador of Youth James “Dewey” Harris before all of the participants. “As a leader, you got to know yourself. We put this together because we believe in y’all.”

The courses at Spark Lab encourage the students to be innovate and create via gamification, music, coding, video production, video marketing and virtual reality. Pioneering video game developer and Drama Desk award-winning Broadway actor Dr. Joseph Saulter, also founder of the first African-American-owned 3D video game development company, Entertainment Arts Research, brought along chemical engineer Dr. Thomas Mensah to speak with UNL’s youth.

Dr. Thomas Mensah, the co-inventor of fiber optics, delivers a presentation at Usher New Look's Spark Lab (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.).
Dr. Thomas Mensah, the co-inventor of fiber optics, delivers a presentation at Usher New Look’s Spark Lab (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.).

A co-inventor of fiber optics, Dr. Mensah presented a video involving nanotechnology, featuring a surveillance camera inside of a drone resembling a bird. The Ghanaian inductee into the National Academy of Inventors led an inspirational call-and-response chant to trigger the kids’ interests. “The right stuff comes in black, too,” proclaims the president and CEO of Georgia Aerospace Systems.

“Chart your course right now. You can be a scientist or an inventor. You are all geniuses. Let it come out. If you do work in your class, that gives you the platform to move to the next level.”

He explained how one of their ideas has the potential to change an entire industry and they should always be ambitious with their ideas. He then told them about companies that are making it easier for inventors to get their projects up and running. For example, InventHelp can help you if you’ve got no clue where to go with your idea next. This means they don’t need to know every single thing about how to invent a product as there are always people who will be willing to help along the way.

Emphasizing the importance of having a solid education, Dr. Mensah, who authored The Right Stuff Comes in Black, Too, adds, “I’m not different from you. You are the right stuff. You can do things that others can’t do. If you work hard, you’ll do better things than all of us have done.”

Spark Lab pupils sat through breakout sessions with Microsoft Surface Pros at each desk. Each participant learned beginner level coding, basic loops and algorithms to create commands. “Once you understand the basic things, you’re able to enable others,” insists Microsoft architect/director Trice Johnson. “My job is inextricably linked to the success of everybody around me.”

“Because of their passion here,” continues Johnson, “I’m thinking about how we can enable them through devices. They’re learning the same games that they play everyday that their parents are buying for them. They’re getting inspired to learn how to build and create these worlds for themselves.”

The classroom next door was converted into a unity platform, an immersive 3D world using numerous characters and avatars. Practical engagement with technology, Johnson believes, piques the pupils’ engagement, allowing them to become more self-sufficient. Johnson adds that youth contributions to sustainable communities begin by acquiring soft skills.

An Usher's New Look participant experiments with VR technology (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.).
An Usher’s New Look participant experiments with VR technology (Photo Credit: Tommy Springer, Jr.).

“Technology has made us lone rangers,” proclaims Johnson. “They should take this intellectual energy they have and tap into a greater power inside of them, bring it all together, hone it and harness it so we can get it to the market. Innovation can’t come if you don’t have love and passion for the world.”

Another platform, Urban Game Jam, participated in Spark Lab to demonstrate how STEAM directly correlates to video game development. Executives from TV One attended Spark Lab to share the educational initiative targeted specifically to middle school students.

“Aside from just playing video games, they can develop them,” states LaTanya Butler, TV One’s Vice President, Partnerships and Marketing. “There’s a whole big world out there for them with way more opportunities if they can get a handle on STEM and recognize the importance of this to their community, future and this world.”

Urban Game Jam was originally designed for developers to create a mobile app for one of the African-American targeted network’s original programs. The program is evolving into showing how television production configures into STEAM education, too. Butler echoes that STEAM can be fun and engaging for young minds. Having many side conversations with some of UNL’s youth, Butler witnessed how multi-dimensional and multi-talented kids are.

“Our kids don’t always have to be in front of the camera,” says Butler. “There are way more opportunities behind the camera. We need to continue to kick those doors open and rally as a community like we always have.”

Spark Lab concluded with a euphoric freestyle cipher and trivia contest pertaining to UNL’s history. The kids took Snapchat videos and cheered each other on as they individually performed for one another. The afternoon ended with streams of group photos and a chorus of thank yous to the community partners, parents and volunteers.

“These kids are entering a dimension of their lives they’d never be able to enter if people did not care,” says Johnson. “We’re gonna have to make this part of our career, our life, DNA and existence. It’s love, togetherness, peace and working well together. If you’ve got that, you can go off and innovate.”

Butler reaffirms Johnson’s sentiments.

“African-Americans are trendsetters,” says Butler. “We love our community. We recognize that we need to expose our children to what’s going on and prepare them for the future. We need our kids out there saying STEM is the new hot thing. All we have to do is put it out there in front of them. They get it. They always have.”

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

Follow the Burton Wire on Twitter @TheBurtonWire or Instagram.

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