Captain New Orleans
His brother may be Marvel’s new “Captain America” on screen, but for almost 10 years, Dr. Calvin Mackie has been busy on the ground helping New Orleans youth find their own super powers as he tackles one of the biggest problems New Orleans — and the nation — faces. Now he’s looking to take things to the next level, and he needs your help.
Later this month, twin sisters Ani and Malaya Mitchell will officially begin their freshman year at Texas A&M University. Ani will be studying to be an environmental engineer, while Malaya has chosen to become a physician. The two may be on different paths, but both will be able to chase their dreams thanks to a total of $320,000 in scholarships (covering full tuition of $40,000 a year for each girl) that they received as the recipients of the first full tuition scholarships the university has offered for STEM NOLA participants.
The Mitchell sisters’ recent triumph is an example of what STEM NOLA’s founder, Dr. Calvin Mackie, says is the power of creating “that mythical cradle-to-career pipeline that people talk about, but I’ve never seen anyone actually do.”
The twins’ road to success started when their grandmother happened to catch a segment on the news about how a local man was bringing hands-on STEM experiences to inner-city youth. Excited, she called the twins’ mother and told her to get the girls — then eighth graders — involved. After building their first robot and remote-control car at the organization’s annual STEM Fest, the girls were hooked. They continued to participate in the organization’s STEM Saturdays, STEM Fests and summer camps, eventually becoming STEM Fellows and even serving as president and secretary of SGA (Stem Global Action — the overarching rebrand created last summer when the organization decided to expand its efforts across the world).
Next year will mark 10 years since Mackie, a native New Orleanian, held his first community event. In that time, STEM NOLA has engaged 100,000 students starting in pre-kindergarten, 20,000 families and 2,150 schools across the United States and in five other countries, as well as countless STEM professionals.
It’s an impressive accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning for Mackie. In his words, “The scale of the solution must meet the scale of the problem,” and that means thinking big.
Currently operating out of offices on the Xavier University campus and a 10,000-square-foot space at the headquarters of Liberty Bank, STEM NOLA is in pre-construction on a 40,000-square-foot space in New Orleans East that will eventually serve as the STEM Innovation Hub for Black Excellence. Expected to break ground in January 2023, it will house laboratory space, classrooms, meeting spaces and 21st century technology to expose, educate, train and connect students to STEM careers and skills. The project is supported by donations from Ochsner Health and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, but is still in need of funding.
Hoping to add further to the economic reinvention of the area, In March, Mackie’s brother, Anthony — an actor who plays the first Black Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — announced that he had purchased 20 acres across the Interstate 10 Service Road from the site of his brother’s future innovation hub. He plans to use the space as headquarters for his new production company, East Studios LLC.
The innovation hub is only step one of Mackie’s plans in New Orleans East. The goal is to ultimately create a $100 million STEM District — which will include a STEM education center, hotel, water park, amusement park, sports complex, and warehouse and distribution center — at the abandoned 227-acre site that once housed Six Flags and Jazzland.
“We’re trying to build what I want to call the Epcot of STEM,” he says. “I want it to be like an immersive experience for families where they can come and be immersed in the technology of the 21st century.”
In addition to serving as a much-needed economic engine for a long-struggling area of New Orleans, Mackie sees the Innovation Hub and STEM District as a further step toward righting a wrong that has long bothered him.
“We live in a nation that makes sure every Black and brown boy touches a football before the age of 4 and no one questions it,” he says. “Little boys and girls, regardless of their age or where they live, are playing sports in school and accessing sports easilty out of school with the hopes and dreams of one day being one of the 250 that get drafted in the NFL or becoming the next Tiger [Woods] or the next Serena Williams.”
Black, Hispanic and Female Workers Underrepresented in STEM Fields
Percentage of American workforce that is Black: 11% (no growth since 2016)
Percentage of Black workers in STEM fields: 9% (up 1% since 2016)
Percentage of American workforce that is Hispanic: 17%
Percentage of Hispanic workers in STEM fields: 8%
67% of those employed in STEM fields are white and 13% are Asian
Women earned 85% of the bachelor’s degrees in health-related fields, but just 22% in engineering and 19% in computer science as of 2018.
SOURCE: 2021 study by Pew Research Center, “STEM Jobs See Uneven Progress in Increasing Gender, Racial and Ethnic Diversity”
The reality, of course, is that these success stories are extremely few and far between — and at a time when employers struggle to fill real, well-paying jobs in STEM fields.
“In athletics, if a guy is strong as an ox, fast as a rabbit and in the backwoods of West Virginia, somehow LSU can find him,” he says. “And I’m saying we have to do the same type of thing. We don’t know where the STEM geniuses are…so we have to go in and put STEM in everybody’s hands just like we do football and see who resonates with it, who responds to it. Then we mentor and coach and create the pathways where they can go on and create a better future for themselves and for the community.”
Mackie says the problem New Orleans has seen with the increase in crime over the past year — a good portion of it committed by juveniles — arises from a lack of opportunity.
“I call it the belief gap,” he says. “COVID exposed it and that’s what we’re trying to close. I’m trying to give kids hope, before they believe that there is no hope. That’s why we’re working day and night. It happens in a lot of low-income communities. People come in and poke kids and then they never show up. You give people hope when you keep showing up. I kept telling my wife, ‘Believe me. Give me three years. If we keep showing up, people are eventually going to believe that we are real.’”
It’s been almost 10 years now and Mackie has more than proven he’s in it for the long haul — and able to get results. In addition to the Mitchell twins, he notes that one of the first children the organization started tracking was a boy who began participating in STEM NOLA programs in the ninth grade. That boy is now a mechanical engineer working for Lockheed Martin to build an F35 fighter jet.
“Troy — he actually owes me a steak dinner,” he laughs. “I haven’t gotten my dinner yet.”
When talking about the impact STEM NOLA has had, however, Mackie quickly gets serious.
“Emotionally, sometimes it’s overwhelming when people come back, and we see them and we have pictures of them when they were little, and now they just got an $80,000-a-year job. That’s the dream, right?”
Mackie says the power of these success stories returning to their communities helps make the dream feel achievable for others. Elevating a child from a STEM Saturday to a lucrative career, however, means addressing a wide array of roadblocks, including plain old teen apathy.
“My boys, when they got to the ninth grade, they said, ‘Look, Daddy, we’re not coming to STEM Saturday anymore.’ So, I had to find a way to keep them engaged,” he says. “Kids tend to disengage around ninth grade, so we created something called a STEM NOLA fellow. For those kids who come through the funnel, who participated before, who want more immersion, or more experience in some area, we invite them to volunteer for STEM Saturdays. We give them a $100 stipend when they participate in a module, and they get exposed to companies and engineers. We’ve had sessions with the Bioinnovation Center, and EBR Architects did a three-day session on adaptive design. UNO’s Coastal Research and Environment did a three-day session where we took them out to Venetian Isles and they got in a boat and did some planting…We give them more immersive experiences from ninth to 12th grade to try to keep them loaded in the pipeline.”
When it comes to the next step, getting into college, STEM NOLA is also there to help.
“We give kids access to application writers, consultants, everything they need. We’re actually about to partner with Robert Smith — the wealthiest Black man in America. He’s created a website where kids can go and find internships, so we are marshaling all of our college students and our high school students into his portal.”
And the final step? College to career? STEM NOLA is still there.
“We have put over $2 million, now $2.5 million, in the hands of college students because we pay them and train them to come out on Saturdays and to work after-school programs,” he says. “They can come and give back to the community. And then we surround the college students with STEM professionals where they can make those connections.”
Mackie says at the heart of what he’s doing lies the simple act of leveling the playing field.
“We’re trying to do for our kids what middle-class people do for their kids all the time,” he says. “They put them in camps. They give them all this exposure and let them find themselves, right?… I have a belief that the last thing a parent wants is to know that another kid is getting something that their kid isn’t. We can fill that gap. And if we can show them that with integrity, with authenticity, with vitality, they will respond. That’s what we’ve been doing, and people have responded.”
They have responded, not just in New Orleans, but across the country and around the world. Spurred by the reports of an external evaluation that found that 69% of the New Orleans nonprofit’s K-12 students improved their performance in math, science and reading after one year in a STEM NOLA after-school program, last December the organization was chosen to partner with a Tanzania-based youth-led initiative aimed at expanding career options for younger generations called ProjeKt Inspire.
“We’ve also engaged a group in Ghana through a young man whom I’ve known a long time,” says Mackie. “I mentored him through the National Black Engineers. Once COVID hit, he reached out and said, ‘You know, I have these kids, please help me.’ So, I started shipping them all these kits.”
The “kits” are hands-on science kits similar to the ones that Mackie used to fill his garage with when he first started teaching STEM to neighborhood kids. When purchasing them became cost prohibitive, he decided to save money by making his own.
“My boys became like the chief technology officers, and they would test all these kits and tell me, ‘This is too hard,’ or ‘It’s just not going to do it,” he says. “So, we started building our own kits. For instance, we built these boats out of Styrofoam and hobby motors for like $5, where other people were selling them for $25. There’s no way I can engage 100 or 200 kids at $25 a kid. But if I could make these boats for $5 in my wife’s kitchen, then we could make it affordable for sponsors in poorer communities.”
Far beyond helping him save money, STEM NOLA’s science kits have become an added source of revenue.
“People are buying our kits all across the country,” he says. “As a matter of fact, we’re looking at spinning off a whole for-profit company just to produce the kits because we can’t keep up. Last summer a major school district wanted 90,000 kits a day for 16 days!”
After a board member introduced Mackie to Boston Consulting Group, the group provided a business plan for the kits. They also provided guidance on STEM NOLA’s upcoming innovation hub, which he hopes to have up and running by summer 2024.
“I want colleges to come here and recruit young people like they do these athletes,” he says.
Of course, the key to all of Mackie’s big plans is financial support.
“We’re in the city budget,” he says. “We receive anywhere from $40,000 to 50,000 from the city a year. And then we also have some great partners, including Entergy, Ochsner, Boeing, Chevron, AT&T and the Kellogg Foundation. This is long-term workforce development for them. They understand that we have to start creating engagement. What we’re doing has to become a part of the lexicon and the DNA of our kids.”
For companies moved by STEM NOLA’s mission, Mackie says he welcomes the opportunity to help them create something special for their employees.
“We’re definitely looking for volunteers,” he says. “We want to engage with companies, to help them reconnect with the community, give their employees an authentic experience within a community. But also, what we want is a genuine partnership with companies. We want to know their needs, to build for them. For Chevron, for instance, we do a chemistry day. For Entergy we do a transmission and power day. That’s why the employees like it, because they come out and say, ‘This is what I do.’”
Just like he encourages companies to form partnerships with STEM NOLA, Mackie says he’s also excited to work with other local organizations on workforce development.
“I’m not trying to do it all by myself,” he says. “I’m trying to build something that can support what organizations like GNO, Inc. are doing, for example, with offshore wind energy. We’ve been teaching kids about windmills and making windmills now for eight years. Other organizations are creating pathways and we’re driving people to those pathways. We’re trying to create a platform where these groups can come and present an audience to them who said they want this, and then they deliver. That’s how we create the pipeline for the DXCs and IBMs and everybody else.”
It Pays to Study STEM
STEM workers who majored in a STEM field in college average higher salaries than those who did not: $101,100 vs. $87,600
Highest and Lowest Earning STEM Fields by Median Annual Earnings:
Computer occupations $105,300
Life scientists $66,540
SOURCE: Upper Cumberland Business Journal 2021
More About Mackie
Dr. Calvin Mackie holds a bachelor’s of science in mathematics from Morehouse College, as well as a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech.
The first Black professor at Tulane University to become tenured, his work while at the university included research related to heat transfer, fluid dynamics, energy efficiency and renewable energy. His 11-year academic career ended in June 2007 with the disbanding of the engineering school due to financial hardship from Hurricane Katrina.
Appointments by Louisiana Governors
Board member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA)
Board member of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA)
Council member of LaSTEM Advisory Council
(Former chair of) the Louisiana Council on the Social Status of Black Boys and Black Men
“A View From the Roof: Lessons for Life and Business” and “Grandma’s Hands: Cherished Moments of Faith and Wisdom”
Most Recent Award
2022 President’s Award from the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE)