By John Laidler , Boston Globe Correspondent
In 2016, Olu Ibrahim began Lowell-based Kids in Tech with a goal of inspiring children from low-income backgrounds to consider future careers in math and technology-related fields.
In the ensuing four years, her organization has created after-school clubs at Lowell schools and youth organizations that annually expose girls and boys ages 8 to 14 to STEM subjects ranging from robot-building to cybersecurity and app development.
Recently, the nearly all-volunteer nonprofit earned some notable recognition when the group was selected to serve as a partner organization in this year’s STEM Week, an annual program of lessons, speakers, and design challenges held in participating schools.
With the selection came a $50,000 grant from the state’s STEM Advisory Board, according to Ibrahim, Kids in Tech’s CEO.
“I was shocked,” she said of her group’s selection. “We are a small, start-up organization. A lot of the others that won are established groups, so it meant a lot that they thought our proposal was so good.”
Kids in Tech’s role in STEM Week — held virtually from Oct. 19 to 23 — was to create curriculum for a cybersecurity challenge intended to deepen students’ understanding of the Internet and such topics as online safety and cryptography. Notified of its selection in late July, the group had only a few weeks to complete the work.
“It was just intense,” said Ibrahim, “but it was definitely a labor of love.”
A Lowell resident, Ibrahim has worked previously in the Boston public schools as a teacher and the manager of an industry internship program. Through a fellowship, she also helped a Tennessee music education startup incorporate STEM topics in its curriculum.
Ibrahim said University of Massachusetts Lowell’s work to motivate and prepare students for technology careers helped inspire her to start Kids in Tech. She said she also saw a need, noting that math and computing skills did not seem a focus of existing area STEM programs.
“The world is going through this digital transformation,” she said. “We need kids to be in that mindset early. I thought I could start an organization that … could set them on the path to becoming future builders and creators of technology.”
While open to all students, the clubs — which charge no fees — are targeted to children from low-income backgrounds. Kids in Tech is funded by the organizations hosting the clubs, along with corporate and individual donations.
“We need to nurture geniuses from all parts of our society,” Ibraham said.
Currently, Kids in Tech partners with Moody Elementary School, the nonprofit Coalition for a Better Acre, and the Lowell Housing Authority to offer clubs at their sites. Kids in Tech supplies all the staffing and equipment for the clubs, which each have 10 to 15 students and meet twice weekly.
All sessions are currently virtual due to the pandemic. A Kids in Tech board member is helping students whose homes lack Internet to identify low-cost Wi-Fi options.
Volunteer instructors, including retired teachers, lead club sessions, joined by visiting representatives from area technology companies, including iRobot and the Mitre Corporation, which both have main locations in Bedford. Each semester includes several field trips to industry sites.
“It exposes kids to all these industries they might otherwise never see,” said Priscilla Scannell, a teacher at the Moody School and coordinator for its Kids in Tech Club, noting that Moody students have been able to work with iRobot employees to disassemble robots, and with MilliporeSigma representatives to simulate DNA testing.
Scannell said students, many from immigrant backgrounds, also get to hear from industry representatives about their own career paths.
“Some of these are immigrants, themselves,” she said of the technology workers. “They explain how they had to learn English and the schools they attended to work in these fields. It’s good for kids to see that it’s possible.”