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Opening Doors to Science and Technology, on Four Hours of Sleep

July 14, 2016

Update: Applications for the 2018 Bridge Fellowship are open now through September 2nd.

Zaitrarrio Collier of Austin, Texas was recently named one of TNTP’s 2016 Bridge Fellows. As a Fellow, Zay will build a program to give students hands-on opportunities to gain technological skills and knowledge, with a goal of increasing access for young men of color in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We sat down with Zay to learn about his path to the Bridge Fellowship.

You’re a technologist and a pilot. How’d you find your passion for science and engineering fields?

For me, my path to STEM began with my fifth grade math teacher. He brought in an Apple II computer and opened this incredible door of creativity. That’s when I started learning to program. I spent years programming and building things on my own. My father was a psychiatrist, and brought me in as an intern the summer that I was 14. I created a billing system for his medical practice. That was my first technical job, and it led to more opportunities. For me, engineering has always been very hands-on.

I’ve heard you say that “hands-on” experience is not always how engineering classes are structured. Can you talk about that?

Engineering programs have really focused on weeding out students, not engaging them. At Cornell for example, where I studied electrical engineering, you didn't even get to see what engineering was really about until your third year. Before that, you're just taking prerequisites in math and science. A lot of students are not prepared for that early coursework, so they’re getting pushed out of engineering before they even really experience it.

That was vastly different from my own experience. I saw engineering as creative expression, because I’d experienced that hands-on. After my first year at Cornell, I saw so many friends change majors because they were like, "There is no way I'm doing this to myself." That was upsetting to me. I thought, there have to be better ways to engage students in engineering.

You spent several decades starting and working in tech companies. How did that affect your thinking about access to STEM opportunities?

Wherever I went, particularly in the field of high tech, I was typically the only brown face. That to me was absurd. That was where my perspective on increasing diversity in STEM really shifted. I had an implicit understanding of why it was like that. Even at Cornell, the doorway in was very small. I realized that it was even smaller than I had imagined. Ultimately it just came down to access. The access wasn't there for people of color to enter these fields, beginning with students.

How does your non-profit, Phoenix Arising, work to address that?

As an engineer or an entrepreneur, you are trying to create value by addressing a problem in the world around you, right? That's what STEM is for. Science and math are there for us to solve problems. The goal of Phoenix Arising’s work is to empower others, particularly those who are disenfranchised and who have the least access to opportunities, to explore relevant, real-world applications of STEM.

To do that, we deliver both after-school programs and summer programs. We use aviation to get students in the door. There’s an inherent human fascination with flight. It’s almost magical. Our students learn how to fly using flight simulators. They learn how to take off. They learn how to operate all the controls. They learn all the forces. It’s physics. It’s thermodynamics. We've used that whole ecosystem to expand their horizons. Once they’re in the door, we build on those experiences to engage them in subjects like computer science, engineering, and design.

Can you give me an example of what, say, a sixth grader is doing right now in one of your summer classes?

Did you see the movie The Martian?

Yeah.

Okay. In our camps, one topic is The Martian. What you would do if you were stranded on Mars? How would you survive? What resources would you have available? Students are exploring those questions and trying experiments to see what will work. That's just one example.

How do you think we can increase access to STEM opportunities for kids of color?

You've got to meet students where they are. There are some great programs around the country that will prepare you for the workforce, but not programs the students we’re talking about can attend, because of real resource constraints—both financial and time. And many of these students are coming from schools where they haven't even been given the educational foundation to get through the interviews for those programs.

That's what Phoenix Arising is about. We are not going to go try to teach a student linear equations if we don't know what is going on in their life, and don't know how to meet them where they are. We are going to remove those barriers of resource constraints. We’re going to remove the barriers of being under-prepared, by focusing on the things students most need to know in order to be employed in STEM fields, soft skills as well as technical skills.

What do you mean by soft skills?

Black and brown students who have just come out of high school have not necessarily been prepared for collaborating in the workplace or communicating effectively. You can equip people with technical skills all day, but which skills are in demand will change. What we will do in this program is equip our students to create value. When you create value, you become a resource that can effect change in your own life and the lives of others.

So we are not going to simply teach you how to build a website. Anyone can build a website. We are going to teach you how to solve problems. The soft skills are communication, leadership, collaboration, presentation, confidence, and recognizing that you can create value. If you've got technical skills on top of that, that's a powerful person. We are going to be equipping our students with the power to go out and change this world.

What do you hope to get out of the fellowship?

I say this carefully: I am not interested in small-scale change. I do believe change happens with one person. But my calling is to effect large-scale change that addresses educational, social, and economic disparity. Period. I will walk away from this fellowship satisfied only with having built a program that can scale to affect tens of thousands of students and improve their lives. I believe that’s possible.

My drive in pursuing this is very personal. Phoenix Arising was created to honor my father. My father overcame the odds against him to become the first African-American Health Commissioner of Baltimore City and the first African American to graduate from Vanderbilt University. He believed that no matter what your circumstance or your background or your obstacles, every single individual is capable of greatness. The reason I do what I do is because that’s what he poured into me. That’s what I believe I must pour into others. Even if I'm only getting four hours of sleep a night. It's that important.