Tucked inside the 48 blocks that make up Atlantic City in New Jersey, a small group of determined educators is hard at work. They’re reimagining traditional after-school programs so the students in this community have the tools they need to build their dreams.
This transformation is taking place at a set of new technology labs created by the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City as part of their 21st Century Academic Enrichment Program. The labs, which focus on STEAM – science, technology, engineering, art, and math – as well as design and career training, are equipped with iPad and Mac computers provided by Apple. Leading this new initiative are third-generation Atlantic City residents Stephanie Koch and Mia Williams.
“Atlantic City has been focused on hospitality for so long so we’ve kind of forced ourselves into thinking about just one career pathway,” says Koch, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. “By refocusing on STEAM, we’re arming children with critical thinking, creative expression, and problem solving skills that can be used in the future. We want this to serve as the scaffolding for them to climb to a better tomorrow.”
“I’m so proud to be a part of this program,” says Williams, who is in charge of running both the STEAM Lab for children up to age 12 and the Design Lab for those aged 13-18. “It makes me emotional because I watched my grandparents effect change through their work in education here, and they inspired me to want to continue that work to make sure kids here are set up for their future.”
Williams’ grandparents were both educators in Atlantic City and she credits them with instilling in her a lifelong passion for learning, and for technology. Her grandfather always had Apple products, so she grew up learning on a Macintosh. Eventually, Williams went on to work for Apple as a creative with the retail team, helping Apple customers learn, explore, and bring their ideas to life. That skillset was a perfect fit for Koch when she needed someone to help her imagine a new framework for the Boys & Girls Club’s after-school programs.
“Mia is a professional role model,” says Koch. “She shows what’s possible when you bring Apple products and an Apple-trained professional to a community. The kids are engaged by her, and now having this cutting-edge hardware by her side, it excites them even more.”
The hardware comes in the form of iPad and Mac computers, and is part of a larger donation Apple is making to Boys & Girls Clubs nationally through its Community Education Initiative to support creativity, coding, and career development programming. Apple is donating a total of 2,500 devices to club locations in Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, D.C., Wisconsin, and the Atlantic City club in New Jersey. Apple will work with those clubs to help them explore the full potential of their new devices and begin to integrate Apple coding and creativity programming into their curricula.
There’s just so much that we can learn here that’s going to make life better and we’ll be able to help other people do that too.
Williams created curricula for both the STEAM and Design Labs and incorporated Apple programs including Everyone Can Code, Everyone Can Create, and Develop in Swift. The younger students in the STEAM Lab program will learn the basics of coding and beyond, and eventually will start programming their own robots. One of those students is 10-year-old Dulce Santiago.
“I’ve never been included in stuff like this before – building things with other people – so it’s a fun opportunity,” says Santiago. “It makes me feel excited and happy, and like finally part of something.”
The Design Lab is geared toward older students between the ages of 13 and 18, and focuses on teaching the foundations of graphic design. It’s one of three tracks that the club offers for career development; hospitality and health care are the others.
Ahmad Brown, 17, joined the Boys & Girls Club this fall after he found out about the Design Lab. Brown is an aspiring musician and wants to learn how to design his future album covers – but that’s not all.
“I was hooked because I can make things for businesses here in Atlantic City and I can make things for myself,” says Brown. “There’s just so much that we can learn here that’s going to make life better and we’ll be able to help other people do that too.”
In the new year, the Design Lab will start pairing students with Atlantic City restaurants and shops to design signs and logos.
“The idea is that we build a social enterprise to help local businesses as well,” says Koch. “It takes an ecosystem to make change and to really wrap around a population to lift them up to the next level and we do that with these labs, and these partnerships. So these kids are prepared for the world of work, and the future.”
Williams hopes that future includes more diversity in graphic design and technology as a whole.
“We need to see more girls, more Black and Brown faces in industries that they weren’t necessarily well represented in before,” says Williams. “I hope that this program will help with that, so kids can really see the full extent of the pipeline that is open to them.”
It seems to be working already.
“Miss Mia is a great teacher,” says Brown. “She can relate to a lot of the things that we may go through because she’s from a similar situation. She definitely makes me feel like I could do it too.”
Dulce Santiago agrees. She wants to be either a therapist, or, since meeting Williams, a graphic designer.
“She’s one of my favorite teachers because she’s goofy,” says Santiago. “And she lets people build their own world.”