Calvin Mackie is an entrepreneur, engineer, professional mentor and founder of STEM NOLA, a nonprofit with a mission of exposing, inspiring and engaging kids in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields.
Though his brother, Anthony Mackie, is perhaps the better known Mackie for his role as Falcon in The Avengers movies, Calvin Mackie is something of a superhero in his own right. In the nearly decade since it was founded, STEM NOLA has touched the lives of some 100,000 young people. Now, Mackie is taking the organization’s model to other states — and countries.
He sat down with us recently to talk about what STEM NOLA is doing and what New Orleans needs to help its young people succeed.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What exactly does STEM NOLA do? How does it expose kids to STEM?
We founded STEM NOLA in 2013 to expose, inspire and engage communities in hands-on STEM through experiments and demonstrations. With that in mind, we partnered with NORD, and on the second Saturday of every month for the last nine years, we have had events for 100 to 200 kids at NORD facilities around the city to increase exposure and access, to make sure every community and every kid has at least two opportunities in their community to have a STEM engagement.
Why is that exposure so important?
When I was 11 years old, my uncle bought me an Erector set and I built a car. When I hit the switch, my car went across the floor and my uncle said, that boy is going to be an engineer. I didn’t know what an engineer was or what they did. But I sit before you right now with three engineering degrees. Exposure is key. That is why the NFL and NBA make sure that every kid touches a football or a basketball before age 4. They know if they play basketball every day they are going to be good players. No one ever asks, do kids do STEM every day. But we know if they do STEM every day, they will have exposure to it and that is how they will get interested in it, and get better.
You have described yourself as a “eduvangelist,” a preacher of the importance of a good education. What made you want to be a eduvangelist?
When I was growing up, sometimes I thought my name was no. I heard no so many times. And if I had listened to people I would be a draftsman or a basketball player or a roofer. People see certain people in certain ways. They looked at me and never saw an engineer. For a whole lot of kids there are not enough people telling them yes. I want to be the one to tell them yes.
The pandemic turned out, paradoxically, to be good for you at STEM NOLA?
Yes because until COVID, all our programming was in person. Then, on Monday, March 16, we’re shut down and I’m looking at 17 employees saying, what are we going to do? Six weeks later, we were up online, with a camera on Zoom doing STEM for free and more and more families and kids began tuning in and telling people. At its height, we engaged 27,000 kids in 47 states and five countries. … Since then, we have partnered with the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania and partnered with an organization there and they are using our content and kits to inspire and engage kids, to train teachers and deliver STEM in urban areas in Africa.
You’re also expanding in the Gulf South, thanks to federal grant funding?
Yes. We got money from the Defense Department right at the beginning of COVID and that helped us think about our delivery and how we are reaching kids. Now, we are doing STEM not only in New Orleans but in Alexandria and Shreveport/Bossier City. We also created STEM Gulf Coast, with programs in Gulfport, Biloxi, Pensacola and Panama City Beach, Florida. We had summer camps in all of those cities last summer, and once a quarter we do an in-person event.
What kind of outcomes do you measure? How do you know that you are being effective?
Part of it is by measuring exposure and the number of kids we are able to touch. Exposure is about making sure kids show up, are engaged and have a rewarding experience, leaving here wanting more. We have engaged more than 100,000 young people. Our ultimate goal is to expose everyone to STEM and to lower the barrier entry to STEM for people who otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to it or even know what it is. So, we ask them what their ZIP code is, if they are on free lunch, and lay that information over a map of the city that breaks down data around education, crime and poverty to show we are engaging the entire city in STEM.
So exposure is one way, just getting the programming to kids?
Yes, and on the second Friday of every month at noon on WVUE-TV Fox 8 we put a kid on the news doing an experiment in an effort to expose the families to STEM so when the mother and father see it on the news they say, what is this kid talking about? Why can’t I get my kid on the news? And why aren’t my kids doing those experiments? And that drives them to us. … Also, we get stories everyday of kids, who are in the STEM fields. One kid now is doing marine biology. Another is at Boston University doing neuroscience and she said it was that Saturday when she walked into the gym and saw a room full of doctors that she knew what she wanted to do. So, we are attracting the students now and we can see just from the thirst in the community and the outreach from the parents that are we are changing the mindset in the city.
What are you focused on at the moment?
We are building a new headquarters in New Orleans East. Ochsner donated to us a 42,000-square-foot building on Crowder Boulevard at I-10. We have demolished it. Hopefully, in the next 3 to 6 months we will break ground on a new facility we hope to have done in 2024. It will be between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet, though it’s getting smaller every day, due to inflation and interest rates. It’s going to cost between $12 million and $15 million. STEM is expensive.
How will you raise the money for this?
I spend 80% of my time crisscrossing the country. Nothing like this is happening anywhere else in the country. The more we tell the story, the more it is getting out. The way we are doing STEM is different than anywhere else. We have built a full-fledged stem company that can design, develop and execute programming for clients, and it’s getting attention. National founders are committing money. We’ve raised about $7 million so far.
What keeps you up at night?
Two things: raising enough money to keep this going and maintaining the fidelity and integrity of this organization for the children. My ultimate goal is to reach one million kids every Saturday. We have one million kids playing ball every Saturday. We should have one million kids doing STEM.