How urban dirt biking is getting black youth into STEM
How urban dirt biking is getting black youth into STEM
This post is part of Mashable's ongoing series The Women Fixing STEM, which highlights trailblazing women in science, tech, engineering, and math, as well as initiatives and organizations working to close the industries' gender gaps.
Kamiya Jordan is a soft-spoken 12-year-old who looks fierce when gripping the handlebars of a dirt bike. You might actually one day glimpse Kamiya’s likeness in the form of a statue, her defiant gaze staring back at onlookers who’ve come to see the work of art that’s replaced one of four Confederate monuments Baltimore mayor Catherine Pugh had removed in 2017.
Kamiya became the model for the planned 3D-printed, 15-foot statue thanks to Brittany Young, a 29-year-old engineer and social entrepreneur who founded B-360, a social enterprise that gives children an opportunity to develop STEM skills by tapping into a shared obsession: urban dirt bike riding.
Young understood that many kids and teens in Baltimore were already de facto engineers and mechanics because they’d learned how to build, ride, and fix dirt bikes. If she could make the connection between that passion and STEM, Young knew she could build a pipeline to well-paying careers for youth in a city where a third of children live in poverty.
When artist April Danielle Lewis reached out to Young about making a dirt biking “un-monument” as homage to black joy and liberation, Young saw a chance to give her black students a leadership role in the project, and she recommended that one of them serve as the statue’s model.
“Having a young black girl goes with changing perceptions,” says Young, referring to the negative stereotypes associated with Baltimore’s dirt bike culture. “But it’s also about black joy and liberation. She represents the embodiment of perseverance, but also how you can increase representation. It’s the perfect model as a whole.”
In January, Young took dozens of B-360 students, including Kamiya, to visit the engineering technology building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where they talked to college students majoring in STEM fields, learned about virtual and augmented reality technology, and created mini 3D-printed dirt bikes. That’s when Kamiya got the chance to climb on a motorbike suspended in an upright position and pose for several cameras. The body scan captured by those cameras will provide Lewis with the model design she needs for the statue.
“It makes me feel great because I know I’m the only girl who’s the model for it,” Kamiya later said. “They picked me.”
When Young founded B-360 in 2017, she faced skeptics who didn’t understand why a program that focused on dirt bikes could turn youth into aspiring engineers and scientists.
But Young grew up in West Baltimore, where she watched dirt bikers perform tricks and stunts every Sunday at Druid Hill, a 745-acre park that’s also home to the Maryland Zoo. The riders also taught kids how to use and fix their bikes. For decades, dirt biking in Baltimore has been a sport, a cultural touchstone, and an outlet for frustrated youth who might otherwise end up in trouble.
The skepticism has slowly given way to accolades and recognition, and Young has since reached more than 4,000 students through pop-up lessons, school programming, and robotics camps. Nearly half of those students have been girls, which gratifies Young. She is particularly focused on reaching kids like Kamiya, whose love for dirt bikes and their mechanics is often overshadowed by the perception that it’s a sport for boys and men.
As a black woman from Baltimore who’s heard time and again that she didn’t belong in STEM, Young is determined to show black girls they can succeed in the overwhelmingly white, male field. Young herself didn’t have a mentor in STEM until just a few years ago, which is why she mentors her own female students with a combination of candor, encouragement, and self-awareness. She is frank about the challenges they’ll face, urges them to tap into their many strengths, and recognizes that she represents something unique to her students.
“They get to hear stories of triumph. We do not focus at all on trauma stories, or traumatic events,” says Young. “We get to concentrate on who we are now and we look at how we got to these spaces. Who are you right now? Right now you are a dirt bike rider who’s becoming a future engineer.”
Young also brings on young, black women majoring in STEM to mentor and instruct B-360 participants. They, in turn, count Young as their own guide.
“I definitely see her as a positive representation in STEM, as a black woman,” says Jessica Sackey, a 21-year-old B-360 instructor majoring in mathematics and information systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “People value mentorship … but it can be a very pivotal thing for someone that doesn’t have any images to look up to. She has a very strong and confident stature, that's what draws a lot of people to her.”
Young’s interest in science grew out of a chemistry set her parents bought when she was in the first grade. It turned the precocious learner, who recalls reading chapter books and writing in cursive by kindergarten, loose on the path to becoming an engineer.
She proved the stereotypes and naysayers wrong with stints at NASA, McCormick & Company, and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. While she loved the challenge of figuring out, for example, how to better move the seasonings for McCormick’s famous Old Bay Seasoning through a manufacturing plant, she ultimately found herself drawn to solving a more high-stakes problem: diversifying STEM and creating opportunities in those fields for youth growing up in communities like hers.
The premise of B-360, however, faced a substantial challenge. For nearly the past two decades, it’s been illegal to drive or ride a dirt bike in Baltimore, a law passed ostensibly out of concern for safety. The prospect of a misdemeanor charge hasn’t stopped people from riding, and the legal reality didn’t stop Young from making the machines the centerpiece of her STEM education program, either.
Like any good engineer, Young knew she could find workarounds to help students channel their passion for an illegal activity into a transformative learning experience. (That has included transporting kids to dirt biking spaces outside of Baltimore, where they can learn to ride safely without fear of breaking the law.) Young believed such a program could change negative perceptions of Baltimore’s dirt bike riders as being involved in drugs and gangs, and by doing so, change biases against the city’s black youth.
“B-360 was a way of combining all of the problems I saw into a positive solution,” she says. “Provide programming and give people options; create better relationships between communities and police; dispel myths and fears; and not to glorify riding in traffic, but say, ‘How do we build this to scale as a lifelong dream?’”
In 2016, Young joined the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab to further develop the idea for B-360. Two years later she received a fellowship from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore to help her hire instructors, hold events highlighting safe riding and bike repair, and license her curriculum to sell to anyone who wants to replicate her model. A Red Bull Amaphiko fellowship for grassroots social entrepreneurs has provided mentoring as well as support for developing a strategic business plan. And winning the highly competitive 2018 Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellowship recently brought an influx of $100,000 in seed-stage funding to B-360, the first real investment the organization received.
“We just want to raise enough money to have enough space to keep growing,” says Young, who describes a constant hustle for both funding and facilities.
Shantell Roberts, founder and executive director of the Baltimore nonprofit organization Touching Young Lives, has watched Young encounter obstacle after obstacle since they met as part of the same cohort at the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab. Roberts says some of their fellow cohort members didn’t understand what Young was trying to achieve with B-360. Even some decision makers who learned about B-360 and could potentially influence public policy couldn’t understand why outlawing dirt bikes in Baltimore had created a “painful problem.”
Roberts believes that acceptance for B-360 will come in waves as the public, along with city officials, begin to view dirt biking as a source of joy — and a conduit to success — for black youth. Roberts says B-360 is special not just because it gives kids exposure to STEM, but also because the programming encourages qualities like entrepreneurship, interpersonal skills, problem solving, and resilience.
That approach “leads them to other pipelines outside of just STEM,” says Roberts.
Indeed, Young has designed the dirt bike monument project as an opportunity for the B-360 participants to learn project management and even teaching. The statue itself will be 3D-printed using crowdsourced pieces created by anyone in the world who wants to “claim” a piece online and send it back to B-360, artist April Lewis, and the 3D printing company We the Builders. The students, including Kamiya, will be trained to lead webinars and pop-up sessions showing the contributors how to 3D print their pieces. Both Young and Lewis wanted every aspect of the statue’s creation to involve positive messages and images.
That means having Kamiya, and even her 9-year-old sister, who also participates in B-360, potentially instruct adults who already own 3D printing equipment.
This prospect thrills Young, who relishes the chance to upend stereotypes in her field.
“STEM looks like a little black girl,” she says, “like how I used to look at it.”
Brittany Levine Beckman