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Conversation #45: Calvin Mackie on STEM

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Calvin Mackie

A conversation with Dr. Calvin Mackie of STEM NOLA on teaching, learning, and service learning.

Dr. Calvin Mackie is one of the nation’s most prolific young STEM and Educational Motivational Speakers and Leaders. He is an award winning mentor, an international renowned motivational speaker, and a successful entrepreneur. His message as a mentor, speaker, entrepreneur and former engineering professor continues to transcend race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and time. His passion and talent is totally devoted to helping people unleash their greatness and transcend personal and societal barriers. Operating under the premise that exposure and experience are two important parameters of success, he utilizes unique strategies and methodologies to motivate and inspire. Calvin Mackie has lectured widely throughout the United States, helping people change the way they think about achieving their lifelong dreams through education in general, and STEM specifically.

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T. Coston: Hello and welcome to the Teaching , Learning, and Everything Else Podcast. I am Tiera Coston and today I am speaking with Dr. Calvin Mackie, one of the nation’s most prolific young STEM and Educational Motivational Speakers and Leaders. He is an award winning mentor, an international renowned motivational speaker, and a successful entrepreneur. His message as a mentor, speaker, entrepreneur and former engineering professor continues to inspire people to fulfill their lifelong dreams, through education in general, in STEM specially. Operating under the premise that exposure and experience are two important parameters of success, Dr. Mackie founded STEM NOLA, an organization whose purpose is to expose, inspire and engage members of the New Orleans and surrounding community about the opportunities in science, engineering, and math. STEM NOLA designs and deliveries activates, programs, and events that bring inspiration, motivation, and training to all STEM stakeholder, specially focused on underserved communities. Dr. Mackie thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

C. Mackie: Thank you for having me Dr. Coston.

T. Coston: My first question is why your passion for STEM education?

C. Melvin: Why my passion for STEM education is STEM has transformed my life. My father was a roofer. Growing up all my life, as a kid in New Orleans, I worked with my dad. I always wanted to impress my dad. He had a 8th grade education so he used to always call out “What’s a half and three quarters?” So I always had to give him an answer real quickly. We used to always build stuff, so when I got to middle school, I took drafting and woodwork. And when I got to high school, again I took I took drafting. And when I got to college, they said I was reading ona 8th grade level due to test scores but my math scores were through the roof. So they asked well what are you going to major in and I said mathematics of course, what else? But after about three and a half years of math, all my numbers seem to disappear and everything turned into words so I struggled. So I said I said I would change my major again to engineering. So I left Morehouse and went to Georgia Tech to get a second undergraduate degree. In five years I got a BS in math from Morehouse and a BS in accounting engineering from Georgia Tech. so literally while working on my BS degree from Georgia Tech, I met people who looked like me doing research. And Dr. caroline Miles, now the president of Georgia State, pulled me into a lab and about six and a half years later, I had a Ph.D in mechanical engineering and I was a professor at Tulane for twelve years teaching mechanical engineering. But it was always my ability to do science and math that brought me joy, that kept me safe, that got me out of trouble when I was in school,and so I know if it did that for me, I knew there are plenty of children in our community that would do the same for them.

T. Coston: So clearly from that direction, came STEM NOLA. So how did that come to be and how was that born?

C. Mackie: As I said previously, I was a professor at Tulane for twelve years. And one thing that really stuck in my brain as a professor was that I just didn’t see professors with the ability to do outreach, professors who wanted to do outreach, and even if they wanted to do outreach, they didn’t possess the skills to reach students. So even at Tulane, outreach was down the street at Newman. That ain’t outreach. That’s visiting your kids. And even at places like Xavier or Morehouse, we do outreach to kids that are going to get it anyway. So a lot of professors go to where they are comfortable so black professors go to black middle class kids. White professors go to white middle or upper class kids. So the question became who is reaching the kids that would otherwise never get this. So what I wanted to do was develop a platform of mechanisms to reach out to the entire community. And there are three basic hurdles that I identified over the years that we had to overcome, to reach these underprivileged communities, and these three basic hurdles was the reason why institutions, regardless of their demographics, ethnicity, or missions, couldn’t do this type of work. And one of the three hurdles they had to overcome was one of access. Many of our institutions fail in outreach and fail to serve these communities because they do what’s comfortable to them. So they do events on their campus especially STEM professors who advertise for people to come to there to campus to get this. Well you know what? The underserved people aren’t coming. The people coming are the people who have the ability to come, and those of the same people we continue to give service to. So if we are going to reach the underserved community, we first have to go to the underserved community. The second one was affordability. A lot of times, STEM is costly for a lot of people. So if you are going to have these things and charge $100 or if you are going to do these things and charge and charge, the only people who are going to get it is the people who can afford it which is the middle class people who are going to get it anyway. So therefore, in our program we raise money and we come up with a pathway for students who otherwise can’t pay. If go to school and get free or reduced lunch, there is a program for you. If you go to school and don’t get free or reduced lunch, there is a charge for you. I do believe that those who can pay must pay for those who can’t. People always ask me, if you were to come in and get a sponsor to pay for everybody, would you ever have a program that was free? And I said no. I would rather have a program that is 100% free to reduced lunch kids who are financially challenged than a program of a bunch of middle class kids who can pay for it. At some point, we have to start delaying these who gets this and what's the cost of getting it. If you can pay for it, you should pay for it, because then that gives us revenue to get more and bigger and better things so that more people have access. And the third barrier you have to overcome is that of expertise. I got a Ph.D in engineering. My wife is a pharmacist. We volunteer at our kids school all the time. But guess what, my kids school have other doctors, pharmacist, and engineers. A lot of children in underserved communities don’t go to school where their parents are pharmacists and doctors. So therefore, I have to use my connections to get these expertise to where these kids are. So one we have the program for the kids, two create the pathway of affordability, and three we marshal the expertise to the kids. And in two and half years, we have engaged over 5,000 kids. The same kids people say don’t want this, the same kids these institutions say are just a waste of time to got to them, we have proven our premise that really people just don’t have the skill to reach these kids where they are. And if you are reaching them where they are, they’ll respond. And that really was the impotence of STEM NOLA. When I was a professor at Tulane, I wanted to create a center of outreach. Literally I offered my salary back up. I said you take my salary and divide up it with the ladies and gentlemen of research and let me start a center of outreach and put me on soft money. Meaning every grant to go out the door, the center of outreach would be involved in that grant. And we’ll do the outreach. So for all of these people who don’t want to do it, all these people who do want to do it but don’t have the skill. Certain amount of money from their grant, pay my center, pay my salary, pay my staff, and we go out and do the work that these people don’t want to do. I believe we are doing a disservice by putting people in front of our kids who don’t want to be there. So every national science grant has brought Outreach in. So that means if you write a grant, you’ll get money to go do outreach. And I’m convinced that there is a whole lot of people who don’t need to be in front of our children.

T. Coston: Okay. So you did this off of a university campus…

C. Mackie: No I didn’t do it off of a university campus. I was on Sabbatical in 2004-2005 and I put the whole idea together at the University of Michigan. When I came back to Tulane, I offered it up to Tulane and they said no. Not only did they say no, after hurricane Katrina, they decided to keep the football team and eliminate the engineering program, so I lost my 10 year position. So instead of going back into the academic, I decided to create my own center of outreach as a nonprofit.

T. Coston: Okay. so I have had the privilege of being a part or attending a couple of your STEM NOLA events. And I am seeing children who are tiny. I am seeing five, six, and seven year olds, but when I on college campuses I still see people who are about to go into young adulthood who still have not had access to maximize their success. So how do we connect the two? We are having this conversation right here on Xavier’s campus. How do we connect you touching those very young students and having students who are prepared once they walk onto a university campus. It's like I know what’s out there, I know what I want?

C. Mackie: I use the spills analogy. Lebron James was on the cover of sports illustrated in the tenth grade, that means they didn’t give him the basketball in ninth grade. fornet , the star running back at LSU in the sixth and seventh grade already they said he was going pro. That means he didn’t pick up a football in the fifth grade. So therefore the NFL and the NBA never have workforce issues. Tonight is the NFL championship. Those colleges never have a problem finding black boys to play football or basketball. And they find brothers that can’t read that well, can’t right that well, but can jump like a kangaroo, is as strong as an Ox and they say you know what? We have a place for you on our campus. But many of our young kids that want to be doctors and engineers are struggling because they are not willing to do for them. So therefore, if we are going to use the sports analogy, just like when they put the golf club in Tiger’s hand when he was three, when they put the tennis racket in Serena’s hand when she was three or four, when they put that basketball in Lebron James hand when he was two and three, we got to put STEM in our kids hands starting pretty much from birth. So therefore, we got a bunch of kids playing football every saturday dreaming of going pro when 15 years later they are going to be drafted, we have to put STEM in these kids heads every Saturday. We can’t pick and choose who’s the STEM genius. We have to inspire all of our kids. So in STEM NOLA, we don’t pick and choose. We do K-12, the entire pipeline. So right now are talking about underserved communities but I am meeting middle class people who don’t know what STEM is. We have middle class parents who don’t understand the possibilities or the pathway that STEM can provide for their children. So therefore, the goal of STEM NOLA is to expose, inspire and engage the entire community in STEM awareness. We have to engage them. You don’t even hear education in my entire statement. It is to expose, inspire and engage. Our K-2nd babies that build things with their hands, they leave out of there believing that one day they can be a scientist or an engineer or a doctor just like Dr. Mackie. But I never want a kid to walk up on Xavier’s campus and never heard of STEM, or science or engineering or thinking that they can’t do that. And that’s what's happening. Our kids are turned off to STEM early on because they haven't been exposed to it. So for the first time in New Orleans, we have little poor black kids showing up to school having experienced something before they get to school. And teachers are writing letters saying they are more confident. So that’s how we change this thing around. We have to expose everybody.

T. Coston: Okay. So we are starting young. What do you hope to accomplish here in partnership on Xavier’s campus?

C. Mackie: I’ve known Xavier’s campus. And I remember when Dr. Norman Francis called me to his office, I’ll never forget that day December 27, 2013. And he said “I want you on this campus.” and I said nope. I don’t want to be on a college campus. I’m critical of college campuses. And if anyone knows Dr. Francis, I ended up on this campus. And he said “No! I want you on this campus. You have been able to do things that I have not been able to do for 47 years”. And I said “What’s that Doc.?” And he said it was get these people off the campus and get them into the community. And that’s what I want. I want to serve as a service provider. I don’t want to displacement as a professor. We want to bring expertise to the professors across the country to get the knowledge that we know they have into the community. I’m critical of the professors because they don’t know how to reach the community. And that’s not a bad thing because you haven’t been trained in that. And that is the solution. We are trying to create a platform so that these professors can just show up and do what they do. A lot of times outreach fails because you have written a grant, they want you to go into a community that you are not used to dealing with or go into a classroom full of third graders that you are not used to dealing with, where what we’ll do is go and set it up. And the only thing they have to do is just show up and do what they do. And I believe that is the answer. I believe the professors have the knowledge. I believe their intentions are good. I believe there is a gap in the skill set because you’re not trained as a professor to engage community. That not who we are. If the kid comes to that professor in a lab or something, they can deal with them, but take that professor and put him somewhere else, it’s a very uncomfortable situation. So we make it a comfortable situation. It can be very intimidating standing in front of fourth graders. We go in, set it up and the professor comes in and does what she does and STEM is too big for one person so we asked professors if you want to do something or if there is something you want to get to, we’ll work with you to help shape it. Because a lot of times, professors forget where kids are in the second and third grade. What I give my two brilliant kids I can’t give to every kid because my kids are playing Phd at home. Their father is Dr. Mackie. They should be able to do that and more. But for the kids who don’t have that Phd at home, I have to give them something at a lower stage and then bring them up to the stage where they need to be. And that’s what we want to do with the faculty members. We want to be their partners and service providers in helping them get their knowledge to the community.

T. Coston: Okay great. So I have a two part question: First, what would you like to see in that partnership from Xavier’s faculty? What would you like to see coming from STEM NOLA from them?

C. Mackie: Well what I want to see from Xavier faculty is a desire. I would like for STEM NOLA to be written in every grant that goes out the door. I would sit down with faculty and tell them how we can help them. Show them how we can help them. STEM is too big for one person. Every faculty here have some expertise in some science or technical area that our kids need to be introduced to. We would like to sit down with those professors and say hey! Put us in the grant you get the grant and this is what we will deliver for you. STEM NOLA’s name doesn’t have to be anywhere on it. We would deliver their data. What ever outcomes they would need, we would get and bring it back to them for papers or publishing, whatever they need to do. We can jointly publish it. And I know it’s challenging. I was a professor. I know their struggles. So this is something we can take off of their lap and then give them the data, they participate on the level of which they want to, and now they have satisfied their grant, we get to satisfy what we need to satisfy. We have engaged over 300 Xavier kids in the community and we give them stipends. We have had several different college kids engage with us, working in the community. So now we have literally created a STEM ecosystem where we are engaging everybody, the parents, STEM professionals, college kids. The people missing here are the professors here at Xavier.

T. Coston: Understood. So this will be my final question. We talked about the Xavier community. What about that group who wants to repeat what you have been doing here in the New Orleans community, maybe out in Oregon or California, what do they do and how do they replicate what you done?

C. Mackie: Dr. Coston we believe we have created a model that is scalable, transferable and reproducible. And the last part is trying to make it sustainable. And that is where the part comes in where now we don’t have to ask anybody for money because now we are sustainable. If we had revenues coming in, we could continue to give to the community. Right now, this model is being replicated in Billings, Montana. I’m heading to Denver on April 14th or 15th because they will be replicating the model across the state. I’m headed to Jackson, Mississippi tomorrow and by the end of the summer, we would have created STEM Jackson. And we just left a meeting in D.C because we are trying to create STEM D.C. So the bottom line is that we built a model that is scalable, transferable and reproducible. What needs to happen if someone wants it in their community, they need to contact us and we need to sit down and work thru the particulars of what’s going to happen. Because we built 20 different modules based on different standards that are transpiring in schools. So not only are we giving you the model, but we have created the modules that you can purchase from us to put on the platform to keep the thing going. Now in Billings, they flew me out, had me speak to their business community, they had me speak to every teacher in the city of Billings, Montana. And they decided well we are going to do what Dr. Mackie did and this is what I tell people don’t do. So what they did was they saw what I was doing, and they took the bad stuff and put it on a larger scale and called it STEM Saturday. No, we have a secret sauce reaching the community. We have a way of keeping these kids engaged. Now our program is diverse from a race, ethnicity, and socio economic standpoint. We have rich wealth because from all races coming to do STEM. and the reason why they are coming is because I believe that if you build a quality program, they will come. Usually we take the quality and put it where they are versus putting it where people can’t afford it that’s how we are going to flip this thing upside down. We are going where the poor people are and put quality there and force everyone to come. And we have an entire booklet on how to do it. May 12th I’ll be the keynote speaker at the national Boys and Girls of America and they are trying to put STEM in out of school time. We’ve done it and they are trying to raise $40 million to do. I said I did it with nothing. Give me $15 million out of that $40 million, and I show you how to put it in every last one of your facilities. Because in New Orleans, we do the STEM in a recreational facility. In New Orleans, we have more kids showing up at recreational facilities for STEM than for individual sports. The city now requires them to have two police officers at every event not because crime or anything like that but because of crowd control. Anywhere from 150-200 kids show up, about 300 parents. Anywhere from 50-100 volunteers. So literally on a Saturday morning, we would have 400 people showing up a gym for STEM. and now around the country, they have these big STEM events based on what we are doing in New Orleans so we’re ready.

T. Coston: And we have been talking to Dr. Calvin Mackie, founder of STEM NOLA. And I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

C. Mackie: Thank you.

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