July 2008: That month was a turning point for Clark “Corky” Graham, who was in transition from his career as a senior vice president from the Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding Sector.
Graham knew he wasn’t interested in playing golf every day, feeling that he was “at the top of” his game. But little did he know that he’d find his new direction during a visit to the Annapolis Boys & Girls Club. Or that the underserved youths he met there would be coming along for the ride.
Knowing that many of these kids lacked skills that are more easily acquired by children who come from more stable backgrounds, in January 2009, Graham founded LET’S GO Boys & Girls, an Annapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to introducing elementary and middle school students to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines in a fun way that piques their interest.
While many such programs lack a way to measure their effectiveness, Graham added that angle to his quest to lead kids from Title 1 schools and youth organizations toward degrees and good-paying jobs that start — upon graduation with a four-year STEM degree — at $60,000 a year.
After Graham retired from Northrop Grumman’s Pascagoula, Miss., location (often spending time at its Electronic Systems Section, in Linthicum, as well), his new job search gained traction when he asked the manager of the Boy’s and Girl’s Club what some of the kids might like to learn.
The suggestion to offer them lessons about STEM topics was all Graham needed to hear. Soon, he raised $5,000 and kicked in some of his own money to buy robotics kits to show to the kids. And his 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization was founded.
Slowly, the program grew, to the point that Let’s Go Boys & Girls now offers its services at 30 sites in the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis triangle, serving approximately 2,000 registered students each year.
Graham focuses on kids from grades K–8 “because we feel that the minority kids in the inner city tend to fall behind in educational development, and we get to them before they, and their parents, fall behind,” he said. “We want to get them excited about learning in an out-of-school environment.”
That environment is created within a $400,000 annual budget, which is generated via $100,000 in private donations and a like figure from clients that can pay. The remaining $200,000 comes from grants from the likes of The Abell Foundation, The Weinberg Foundation, The Jacobsohn Foundation and Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.
Graham said that the enthusiasm of the kids has paid dividends during the nonprofit’s early years. “While they’re having fun, by golly, they’re getting a heck of an education, too,” he said.
His approach is predicated on four principals: To have fun while learning, to understand the importance of technology and math, to sharpen critical thinking and problem solving skills, and to inspire and excite a percentage of all students to get into the STEM pipeline.
“It’s early yet, but we’re shooting to eventually get 10% of all of these kids involved in STEM programs,” he said, pointing out that while 17% of Asian and 6% of Caucasian ninth graders follow that route, only 3% of Latino and African-American kids do likewise, according to the U.S. Department of Education; for kids from the inner cities, the number drops to only 0.5%.
Like Graham, Brian Dulay, COO of UMBC-based STEMnet, which is part of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, knows that isn’t because the latter two groups aren’t capable.
Graham’s “is a wise approach,” Dulay said. Like Let’s Go Boys & Girls, STEMnet works with corporate partners, including BGE. It also offers a speakers bureau and STEM specialists who visit schools and co-teach classes.
STEMnet also works with at least two innovation high schools in each Maryland county (in Anne Arundel County, they are Glen Burnie, South River and Meade; in Howard, it’s Reservoir and Mount Hebron). Dulay echoed the importance of exposing kids to STEM disciplines at a younger age, “though eighth grade is also an earlier point of contact for the students with our speakers.”
“The kids’ parents, counselors and instructors are starting to direct them toward particular fields at that point,” said Dulay. “The kids need to get on a track early, so they develop an interest in a particular field or a certain employer.”
While programs like STEMnet tend to focus on students who are on the cusp of entering high school, Graham obviously feels that the earlier, the better. But, like any other nonprofit, it’s critical to have funding lined up to reach the kids.
On that front, his prior employment certainly didn’t hurt his cause, as Northrop Grumman Corp. (NGC) is among his contributors.
“I was able to attend one of the [Let’s Go Boys & Girls] middle school showcases and was impressed,” said Melissa Sandlin, director of community outreach for NGC’s Electronic Systems Sector. “You want the students to feel enthusiastic about STEM, because they’ll see more opportunities are available to them once they get into high school and beyond.”
Sandlin is also excited about how Graham is running one of the few nonprofits that is attempting to measure its success.
“I’m very interested to see how that part of the program continues to develop,” Sandlin said. “It may not be far enough along to get any cogent results, but I’m optimistic that there will be good news. All nonprofits want to do well, but I think that’s the part of the equation that they often miss.”
While measuring that impact takes longer to decipher for the younger students, Penny Cantwell, chair of the Education & Workforce Committee for the Fort Meade Alliance, agreed with approaching the kids while they’re in elementary school.
“I can tell you that our STEM Family Night that we hold at Arundel Mills is targeted to elementary school students, because all the data suggests that involving students at a younger age provides a good background,” said Cantwell. “And, we can also provide support for parents who often don’t know how to get their students involved.”
Many older students, she said, find it challenging because they don’t have the background due to not having been exposed earlier, so they “dismiss” the heavy STEM curriculum requirements.
“Younger children learn and don’t see it as ‘curriculum,’ or work they have to do,” said Cantwell. “They see it as something different than traditional learning, which excites them.”
Just how far will Graham take Let’s Go Boys & Girls? As far as his funding and connections take him, said Kris Shock, CEO of the Chesapeake Regional Tech Council.
“We have so many companies and members that are doing great things in the area of STEM,” said Shock. “We need to connect them so they can all feed off of each other.”
Meanwhile, Graham keeps working toward reaching more kids and measuring his nonprofit’s success, just as a for-profit company would. “We’re already tracking as many students who are in educational programs as we can,” he said, noting some who are in STEM programs at South River High School and others who are in college.
Since the Let’s Go Boys & Girls is only in its sixth year, he also reiterated that, “It’s too early to get a good measurement on our yield, but we can see that we’re starting to get a good return on investment. When we have more data, we’ll approach more government agencies, corporations, foundations and private donors for more funding.”