Savannah Summer Camp for Young African American Men Pairs Literacy with STEM for Social and Emotional Learning Experiences

Stars School Initiatives is a 501(c)3 non-profit located in a small house off of La Roche Avenue.

Across from Savannah State University on La Roche Avenue sits a small, inconspicuous house. Passing by, no one would know that it is home to three classrooms for a local youth program called Stars School Initiatives. Stars School Initiatives offers after school activities for young African American men in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School system. The 501(c)3 non-profit was founded by Dr. Gertrude Robinson with a mission to prepare male students to master a rigorous curriculum and develop skill sets to effectively interact at home, with peers, community, and the global society. Today Dr. Robinson, a retired administrator of the Savannah Chatham County Public School System, serves as the Executive Director and Program Coordinator.

“It started in 2012 with a conversation with a group of educators concerning the blight of African American males in the school system…I did the research on social emotional learning and knew it was what was missing in education,” shares Dr. Robinson. The original plan was to open a charter school for young African American boys; however, in 2019 Dr. Robinson pivoted to operating an after school program when her application for the school was turned down. 

Stars School Initiatives bases their camp themes around the African American Male “Growing Into Manhood” Curriculum from the 180° Foundation .

Another element of Stars School Initiatives is their annual summer camp called “Growing Into Manhood” for boys ages 11-16 that began in 2016. All the activities have an emphasis on character growth as it relates to academic enrichment as well as social and emotional development. “The camp is all about critical thinking,” says Dr. Robinson. “We cover subjects such as values, peer pressure, stereotypes, and making career choices.” This summer, Dr. Robinson decided to pilot new learning opportunities such as STEM sessions during a nine-week camp. With funding from the City of Savannah and other local and global partnerships, “Growing Into Manhood” 2021 has been a collaborative effort.

Prior to camp starting in May, Dr. Robinson knew she wanted to work with Dr. Erika Tate to bring STEM learning to the curriculum. Dr. Tate is the founder and owner of Savannah’s Bluknowledge LLC, a learning firm that advances equity through the design and study of learning experiences in schools and communities. Dr. Tate first helped Dr. Robinson formulate a theme for camp, and her research led the pair to discover LitClub. LitClub is a weekly literacy and empowerment program of LitWorld, a global, 501(c)3 non-profit with a mission to strengthen kids and communities through the power of stories. Dr. Robinson made the move to partner with LitWorld so that their weekly activities could include LitClub. Every Tuesday the boys have the opportunity to read a story aloud and share their thoughts and ideas. The next step was pairing reading with STEM learning. 

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind tells the true story of a young boy in Malawi who brought electricity to his community through wind power against all odds.

Dr. Tate, an engineer turned educator, has a doctorate in education with a concentration on mathematics, science and technology. She is also an avid reader and instantly knew a book that would easily connect both types of learning. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a memoir about a young boy in Malawi who engineered a windmill out of junk he found and taught himself how to create electricity so he could power his home. He’s now a grown man, but in the story he is a boy who is engineering for his community,” Dr. Tate shares. “The book is the perfect bridge for literacy and engineering.”

To further drive home the connection, every other Wednesday following their LitClub sessions, the campers engage in a LoravoreSTEM Learning session, which is an interactive, blended learning experience designed by Dr. Tate that combines digital instruction with a hands-on activity. Using tablets to answer questions and engage in critical thinking, campers participate in an interactive lecture with a facilitator on a STEM subject. Afterwards, the campers group together to collaborate on creating a physical product or solution to a problem as it relates to the lecture. Loravore Learning utilizes the Center for STEM Research at Hofstra University’s engineering design cycle to guide the learners to build knowledge, design and build a prototype, and to test and evaluate their designs. At the end of the session, the boys each get to take home a kit to try building the STEM challenge on their own.

Both the Literacy and STEM sessions are facilitated by Candace McNeal, a former teacher at the STEM Academy at Bartlett. McNeal created content to fit the camp’s curriculum and says that it’s important for the young men participating in Stars School Initiatives “to see themselves represented” in what she teaches. For example, during the most recent STEM session, she taught the boys how the popular Beats by Dre headphones, something many of them own, were created. Following the lecture, the boys had the chance to actually build a speaker prototype using wire, magnets, and a plastic cup before testing it. “I have learned that when the content is relatable, meaning students have a certain level of connection and emotional buy-in, they are more likely to be engaged, accepting of new challenges, and intrinsically motivated to deepen their knowledge,” explains McNeal. During the hands-on activity, the boys also receive close guidance from Dr. Robinson, Dr. Tate, and  Supreme Scott, who is another camp facilitator.

Other STEM sessions include:

  • Design Like a Spider (campers learn to engineer a spider web)
  • Design a Solar Cooker
  • Design a Water Filter

Each session aims to incorporate themes found in The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind such as problem solving, sacrifice and hard work, belonging, respect, hope, working with limited resources, dealing with and overcoming conflict, and more. 

When camp is over, Dr. Robinson, Dr. Tate, and Ms. McNeal will assess the campers’ growth. “When the kids begin camp they take a survey. There are 10 different attributes on the survey. The parents also rate them. Then I rate them as well. At the end of the camp the boys fill out the ‘After’ section on the survey so we can determine based on how they rated themselves where the growth was,” says Dr. Robinson. In addition to the survey, Dr. Tate plans to capture the boys’ thoughts on their experiences with STEM and their understanding of how it can impact the world.  “We’re using Flipgrid, a video-based discussion tool, to capture their reflections, and we’ll have them answer some questions to get a sense of where they’re at with the learning,” shares Dr. Tate. 

McNeal adds that her hope for the students is that they realize their significance and the value they have in the world. “I have noticed in young people today this notion that they are insignificant;  they do not matter, their ideas do not matter, their voices do not matter, they have nothing to contribute…I hope they leave each session knowing they are capable of making an impact in their home, their families, their community, and their world.”

While sign-ups are closed for the summer, Dr. Robinson and Dr. Tate plan to continue literacy and STEM sessions in the fall. To learn more about Stars School Initiatives, visit their website  here. To learn more about Bluknowldege, LLC and LoravoreⓇ STEM at Stars School Initiatives, click here

About Kait Lance

Kait has been writing for The Creative Coast since 2014. A self-proclaimed "startup hype-woman," she is passionate about storytelling that shines a light on new ideas, innovation, and entrepreneurial opportunities in the southeastern Georgia region.