Fostering STEM Diversity And Inclusion Through Robotics And Turkey

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Robert Jones, a social investor focused on K-12 STEM enrichment within the greater NYC area. Through his organization, Hand & Mind LLC, Robert has a decade of experience helping K-12 schools, universities and community organizations develop programs to increase participation in STEM for historically underrepresented K-12 students.

When I heard that Robert had launched Robotics & turkey, a new international youth robotics conference taking place this November in Jamaica, I knew I had to write a story about it: I spent many years working in robotics and being an educator, and Robert’s program resonated in many ways. And while I won’t be able to join them for Thanksgiving, I am thankful to have crossed paths with him and his fascinating work, which he kindly agreed to share with our readers.

Paolo Gaudiano: For starters, can you give our readers a brief overview of what Robotics & turkey is?

Robert Jones: Robotics & turkey is an annual international youth robotics conference that broadens the STEM talent pipeline by engaging children aged 9-14 years old, particularly girls and children of color.

The inaugural Robotics & turkey Conference is being held over the US Thanksgiving holiday in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The international conference’s audience is FIRST LEGO League (FLL) robotics team delegations from Jamaica and the United States that consist of a team member, their parent, and a team coach. There are 45,000 FLL teams worldwide.

Gaudiano: What prompted you to create this initiative?

Jones: The shorter answer is that the US Thanksgiving holidays is a good time during the very busy FLL robotics season for some US team members to visit Jamaica. Furthermore, a conference format rather than a typical tournament format adds activity variety to the global league that could attract more underrepresented groups to robotics.

The longer answer is that the conference is a natural evolution of my 12-year journey in K-12 STEM enrichment. Twelve years ago I became an Educational Counselor (EC) for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), covering the area of Mt. Vernon, NY, where I reside. In that capacity I would interview high school seniors applying for admission to MIT. I discovered the STEM talent pipeline was totally ruptured when no Mt. Vernon high school seniors interviewed for MIT admission during my first two years as an EC. Mt. Vernon has a majority Black population that is reflected in the city’s and public schools’ leadership.

Gaudiano: What did you do to try to fix this problems?

Jones: I took three action steps:

First, I Worked with a Mt. Vernon charter school, raised funds and established a summer engineering camp for middle school students, serving as a trustee for the charter school for six years.

Second, I created my company, Hand & Mind LLC, and purchased the Bronx franchise for Engineering For Kids, a STEM enrichment organization.

Third, I took a secretarial job within the Mt. Vernon City School District to better understand public school dynamics that were hampering academic achievement.

Gaudiano: How did you get involved with robotics?

Jones: I quickly gravitated towards coaching in FIRST LEGO League robotics, as I found it to generate the highest return on invested time in providing young students (grades 4-8) the skills to succeed in an increasingly more technological world: problem solving, communication, and team-building skills.

Eighteen months ago I boasted to Leo Williams, a longtime friend residing in Jamaica, that my Bronx EFKs robotics team was the 3rd best all-round FLL team in NYC and also represented NYC at the Global Innovation Awards. Leo countered by sharing a video on the state of robotics in Jamaican schools and invited my team to participate in Jamaica’s tournament as the tournament had begun to expand internationally, attracting a team from Romania.

This is the natural evolution that led to the creation of Robotics & turkey.

Gaudiano: Who is going to be taking part in this year’s event?

Jones: Given our primary purpose of broadening the start of the STEM talent pipeline, we wanted our conference keynote speakers to mirror underrepresented groups in STEM—women and people of color.

We now have two female speakers and one male speaker, and all of color: Mr. Malik Afegbua, a Nigerian-based film director and virtual reality developer. Gunjan Mansingh, a Professor of Data Science in the Department of Computing at The University of the West Indies in Jamaica. And Dr. Evelyn Collins, founder of the Denzel Washington School of the Arts in Mt. Vernon, NY.

Will we attract our target audience? We’ll see as we have challenges such as affordability, which is a significant issue given the huge disparity in racial wealth among families with school-aged children. A recent study found that Black families with school-aged children have only 1% of the wealth possessed by their White counterparts.

Gaudiano: What sort of activities are the participants going to be involved with?

Jones: We have designed a range of activities that will educate, engage and inspire the students. For example, they will have the opportunity to listen to and ask questions of the keynote speakers to gain more knowledge of STEM/Arts integration and Artificial Intelligence, and they will review and provide feedback on innovation project presentation drafts submitted by FLL teams.

They will also have hands-on activities, both receiving and providing assistance in robot building and programming to accomplish difficult missions. In fact, they will be working in assigned teams to accomplish a 12-hr “MasterPiece” challenge culminating in one coordinated presentation involving all the teams.

Finally, we want to make sure they will have the opportunity to build friendship and additional camaraderie, through engaging in “beach Olympics” that we are organizing.

Gaudiano: How does your organization support these young people beyond participation in the conference itself?

Jones: We’ll likely have virtual and possibly in-person reunions to nurture relationships formed at the conference that may last a lifetime for robotics team members.

Gaudiano: when you think about how things were when you first started down this path, do you see any signs that things are improving in terms of STEM participation by underrepresented groups?

Jones: Let me share two important examples of recent, significant advances in broadening participation in STEM.

The first is that MIT’s current undergraduate first-year students, Class of 2027, is the most diverse class ever: 48% Women, 16% Latinx/Hispanic, and 15% Black/African-American. That’s huge news! The challenge now is to maintain these gains in spite of the anticipated decline in minority applicants to highly selective universities that will likely result from recent US Supreme Court affirmative action decision.

In my own activities, I have seen tangible improvements within the robotics teams that I personally coach. For example, the robotics team at the Denzel Washington School of the Arts doubled in size and became majority female when my co-coach and I began emphasizing the arts during member recruitment. To maintain or improve those DEI successes we need a myriad of programs to broaden the start of the STEM talent pipeline.

Gaudiano: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to share a couple of endorsements we have recently received, which are a testament to the value of this work.

First, Mr. Stu Schmill, Dean of Admissions for MIT, has endorsed Robotics & turkey. He wrote that Robotics & turkey “is an inspiring program!” that he will personally support.

Secondly, I invite your readers to watch a brief video in which multi-award winning FLL coach Eric Greene summed up the impact of this conference: “This conference could be life-changing for some kids.”

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.