Former WNBA star Niesha Butler opens first Afro-Latina-owned STEM camp in New York City

NEW YORK — (NEW YORK) -- Former WNBA player Niesha Butler has opened the first Afro-Latina-owned STEM camp, S.T.E.A.M. Champs, in New York City to reduce accessibility barriers to tech educational resources for Brooklyn youth.

"If a kid could actually say that they can be LeBron James, and roll it off their tongue as easy as that, then they can literally say 'yeah, I can also put a man on the moon,' or 'I can also create the next app,'" Butler told ABC News.

Butler, a New York City native, says "there's talent in Brooklyn." She established S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Champs in the middle of Brooklyn to encourage inner-city youth to channel their ambition into educational opportunities. Butler also hires interns, may of whom have tried coding for the first time with the program, she says.

"People sell basketball dreams every other second in our community. I thought it was really important to, let's sell these tech dreams," Butler said.

Prior to opening her doors in Brooklyn, Butler partnered with organizations like Girl Scouts, BronxWorks and a local AAU basketball team to host STEM-focused workshops reaching over 300 New York City students. Monday was the first day of camp in the newly opened facility.

"There's not a lot of people of color in tech," Butler said. "These jobs are open for everybody and they're empty…so obviously we need to do a better job at educating our kids and in recruiting them."

Other tech education camps and workshops across the nation have worked to close the gap and make tech careers interesting and accessible to students of underserved communities.

Black Girls CODE is one of those resources providing workshops and public speaking opportunities for Black girls. Program alumni Kimora Oliver and Azure Butler say that the program's first chapter in California's Bay Area created an environment that allowed local Black female students to envision themselves in the tech industry.

"Unfortunately, STEM is a white and male dominated field," Oliver told ABC News. "I feel like [Black Girls CODE] is giving a diverse group of Black girls the exposure that they need to decide for themselves whether they want to continue with STEM in the future."

For almost 40 years, another program called Academically Interest Minds (AIM) at Kettering University has tailored its pre-college curriculum to expose youth of color to STEM coursework and campus life.

"49% of African American students who attend Kettering University now, are AIM graduates," Ricky D. Brown, the university's director of multicultural student initiatives and the AIM program, told ABC News.

For many, STEM educational resources introduce an element of choice in considering STEM and exploring pathways of academic interests.

A study released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that early intervention programs like S.T.E.A.M Champs, AIM and Black Girls CODE are effective in helping students achieve academic success in higher education and STEM majors.

"Some of these kids don't have a computer at home to study," Butler said. "When I go to some of these centers, they don't have good Wi-Fi…they have outdated computers."

According to the study, underrepresentation in STEM is due to a lack of preparation and access to educational resources.

"Given that STEM preparation and college access are shaped prior to college entrance, STEM focused enrichment programs for high school students are promising vehicles to reduce disparities in STEM degree attainment," the study's authors wrote.

In the coming weeks, Butler plans to meet prospective students halfway with a "Code on the Court" event at local Brooklyn basketball courts offering free signups to 10 students.

As the program grows, Butler says she looks forward to partnering with large tech companies like Google and Microsoft to reduce limitations and doubts in the minds of students.

"If I could just affect one kid, we're affecting hundreds of kids," Butler says.

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