Diversity & Inclusion
Education / Nonprofits / STEM

How SAFE Alternative is offering Baltimore students STEAM education by land, air and sea

Founder Van Brooks talks about the foundation's approaches to hands-on education.

Students test sea bots at Masonville Cove. (Photo via Facebook)

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Van Brooks founded SAFE Alternative Foundation for Education to help provide Baltimore city students with education that goes beyond the classroom.
Headquartered at the SAFE Center in Southwest Baltimore’s Franklin Square community, Brooks said a big focus is to provide hands-on learning opportunities for the 12 high school students who are in the program after school and during the summer.
“By giving them that experience and exposure, then a student comes to us and says, ‘I think I can do that with my career,’” he said.
Brooks grew up in Baltimore, and attended Loyola-Blakefield High School. Now he looks to offer students experiences similar to what he received, as well as keep up with what private schools are teaching.
“Being the only person from my family to go to private school, I instantly saw the difference in the education that I was receiving compared to everyone else, as well as the resources and opportunities that I had,” he said.
Along with literacy and health, one area of focus where Brooks identified lots of career opportunities is STEAM – short for science, technology, engineering, art and math. So the organization created a program that provides exposure to the working of creating and problem solving that’s a part of such fields. The program involves three parts: land, air and sea.
For the land portion, Brooks wanted to focus on mechanical engineering skills. He partnered with Meraki Community Uplift to create Flags Up Raceway, providing instruction in building soapbox derby cars. At the end of the first year, a race was held bringing together teams from East, West and South Baltimore. This year, students created go-karts.

Taking to the air for lessons in aerospace engineering, Books partnered with Baltimore’s Global Air Media on drone education. Along with flying students learned to build a drone and about the legal aspects of UAVs.
When it came to the water portion, Brooks looked to integrate education about the environmental footprint students leave along with marine engineering. Inspired by Mr. Trash Wheel, he wanted to create a way to collect trash from the harbor. They created sea bots, made of simple materials like PVC piping and foam, that could offer a way to help the trash wheel’s efforts. After building and testing at the Y, the student teams went to Masonville Cove. With Captain Trash Wheel overseeing the operation, “We actually put our sea bots that we had been working on right into the Bay, Brooks said.
Throughout, Brooks said the students had to make adjustments, such as when the current and the wind on the water made it difficult to navigate the sea bots. He uses it as a lesson that applies to life, as well.

“Things are going to happen in life and you have to make adjustments,” Brooks said.

Along with getting education toward their desired career, he advises students to have an alternative plan in preparation for life’s turns.

Brooks himself was an athletic standout that seemed on his way to professional sports, but suffered an injury to his neck while making a routine tackle on the football field that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Determined not to the injury define him, he was able to recover, and ended up graduating high school on time. After graduating Towson University and continuing to make progress including walking again, he wanted to give back. SAFE Alternative was founded in 2012.

The program recently received $5,000 in funding from the Society for Science and the Public, a D.C.– based organization that offers STEM Action grants to “support community-based organizations that aim to spark lifelong interest in STEM fields, especially among audiences that are underrepresented,” said STEM Action Grant Manager Allie Stifel. “…What we found unique about SAFE Alternative is that this program goes far deeper than just developing that spark” by providing year-round mentoring during out-of-school time, and awareness of career opportunities, Stifel said.

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