Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Partnerships can be challenging. Here’s how two Baltimore tech orgs are doing it

The Be. Org and Full Blast STEAM bring complementary expertise and a shared commitment to serving local youth during out-of-school time through Youth Tech Con and a forthcoming VR initiative.

The Be. Org and Full Blast STEAM joined forces for Youth Tech Con.

(Courtesy photo)

Correction: Full Blast STEAM is a for-profit, not a nonprofit. (10:03 p.m., 12/18/19)

The chance to build robots and learn about 3D printing and electronics can be a big draw for a youth event. Not only can these STEAM activities offer a chance to see how technology works, but they can also offer an introduction to career paths.

Yet right along side the problem solving, the people skills young people can gain will help them grow and prepare for careers. After all, every new piece of technology requires tech know-how to design and build — but on the road to completion, there’s patience, focus and perseverance that helps get there.

“You can learn the technical skills, but all the research shows that if you don’t have these soft skills, as well, students are not going to be as successful,” said Tonee Lawson, executive director of Baltimore nonprofit The Be. Org. “Employers are demanding that they are able to communicate and work effectively with one another in a team setting.”

So at Youth Tech Con, which was held in Baltimore for the second time in October, STEAM was right alongside social and emotional learning.

“They go hand-in-hand,” Lawson said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Before any robots got up-and-running, the day started with 90 minutes of an icebreaker, and lessons on teamwork and leadership. The students then moved into mini games involving robots, electronics and 3D printing, which were run by fellow Baltimore for-profit Full Blast STEAM. The themes that started the day didn’t disappear, however, as facilitators worked to reinforce the lessons and one of the challenges involve solving a problem that required working together.

The students’ ability to collaborate and lead even played into how students achieved on the day: As they succeeded in these areas, they received gems for a bracelet — and “at the end of the day, students that excelled were able to take home their robots,” Lawson said.

The interplay showed not only how two disciplines were intertwined into one event, but also how a partnership between two of the city’s organizations working on out-of-school time functioned.

For an organization striving to deliver on mission, working with others can open up new avenues.

Programming run by The Be. Org and Full Blast STEAM both got going about five years ago. In 2014, Full Blast STEAM began running summer programs with Sisters Saving the City in Northwest Baltimore that have continued ever since. The company’s workshops are designed to allow students to design, build and compete that introduce skills including coding, 3D printing and game design.

It was also around that time that The Be. Org began running lunch clubs for middle school students on character development and education. The next year, The Be. Org started the Beyond the Dream Youth Conference, an annual event that’s now held at Goucher College which focused around college and career readiness.

Lawson found that STEM programming was the most popular at the Beyond the Dream event, and began formulating plans for a daylong tech conference.  In 2017, she connected with Full Blast STEAM’s Muhammad Najee-ullah at Startup Nest. They soon found they could work together to bring the full-day event to fruition by aligning their respective expertises.

“They have all the equipment and they knew exactly how to engage that demographic. I had an idea for programming but needed another partner to help execute,” Lawson said. Likewise, Najee-ullah agreed the social and emotional learning is an important part of STEAM.

They also both had a commitment to best practices: The Be. Org aligned with the CASEL framework for social and emotional learning, while Full Blast sought to learn from organizations across the city like Maryland Out of School Time, Digital Harbor Foundation and the Baltimore Robotics Center.

Further, there was also a shared commitment, and a willingness to partner. In an environment where it takes funding to keep going, competition for resources can be a deterrent. At the same time, working with others can present its own challenges.

But there’s another way of looking at it: For an organization striving to deliver on mission, working with others can open up new avenues.

"I believe that the keys to solving our issues as a community are right here in the community."
Muhammad Najee-ullah

“I believe that the keys to solving our issues as a community are right here in the community. It’s just a lack of trust, will power and perspective,” Najee-ullah said. “I believe that youth and families are what we can all rally around, so that’s been my focus is connecting with folks that have an interest and care for youth and families. I think we can find common ground and build something around it if that’s what’s truly in their heart.”

The Be. Org and Full Blast STEAM have partnered beyond Youth Tech Con.

The Be. Org is working to further infuse technology into its work with Be. Virtual. The virtual reality experience is focused around social and emotional learning. And it’s built by youth, ensuring that those who build it are getting the lessons right along with learning how to code using the Unity game design platform.

“As they’re creating the content and coding the content, they’re getting those [social and emotional learning] lessons, and also they’ll be able to test it out and learn ‘what would I do in this situation,'” Lawson said.

Full Blast STEAM has been able to connect The Be. Org with technologists knowledgeable about VR, and students who can help test it. Najee-ullah sees potential to bring VR and gaming into Full Blast STEAM’s programming, and sees the collaboration as a chance to learn.

For likeminded organizations, there’s also benefit in forming networks.

With fellow Baltimore out-of-school-time organizations including drone company Global Air Media and fitness organization NEWfit Kids, The Be. Org and Full Blast STEAM formed the Youth Investment Alliance. They work together on programming, with each group able to contribute a distinct piece and infuse the best practices they’ve learned into their own work.

“We’ll lesson plan together to make our activities feed off each other,” Lawson said. Like a true partnership.

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