How one alumna is changing the local community 

Summer usually means time off school for most elementary, middle and high school students but some children in the Gainesville community continue their studies in a way that will inspire them as individuals and as students. Children from the Gainesville area, specifically East Gainesville, have the opportunity to attend I AM STEM, a summer camp program founded by three-time University of Florida graduate Natalie King. 

King, who obtained her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the College of Education at UF, uses a "community partnership approach to provide high-quality STEM learning experiences to children of color, particularly those who live in high poverty areas."

“I AM STEM was birthed from my desire to see more children of color project themselves into an image of a scientist, technologist, engineer and mathematician,” King said.

I AM STEM runs from June to August every summer and gives children a chance to get acquainted with STEM subjects early on, while also boosting their confidence in themselves and their abilities. The children do various activities throughout their weeks at the camp, including research, presentations, field trips, and computer lessons and games, all run by teachers, volunteers and interns from throughout the community. The program also welcomes and encourages parents to come observe and join their children in the learning process.

“The instructors in our program are certified teachers who introduce new concepts across subject areas that our children will see in the upcoming school year,” King said, “We want to make sure that our scholars are ready and have an opportunity to tackle rigorous material in a non-threatening and fun environment.”

The program ends with a culminating ceremony where the children demonstrate what they have learned throughout the summer to their families and friends. The event is filled with songs and presentations. This year, Jeremy A. Magruder Waisome, a graduate research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in UF's Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, and a friend of King's, gave the keynote speech and discussed how going into an engineering field has impacted her life.

Like many little girls, Waisome had dreams of becoming an entertainer on Broadway, but that dream shifted when she realized how meaningful, and stable, a career in engineering can be. She now works with top researchers and scientists and has traveled all around the world, thanks to her STEM education.

In addition to being on her way to earn a Ph.D., Waisome is a member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education. She also serves as the Project Manager for the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences (iAAMCS). Waisome says an early STEM education can have a lifelong impact and may encourage the student to pursue these fields in higher education.

“Research indicates that early exposure to STEM increases a student’s propensity to pursue a career in those fields,” Waisome said, “This is why a program like I AM STEM is so important. Because they [children] may not remember what they’ve learned in the short time they were with the program but they will likely maintain positive associations with STEM that can change their academic trajectory.”

Natalie King didn’t always see herself obtaining a degree in education, and had dreams of going to medical school.

“Growing up, I aspired to become a pediatrician and open up a practice with my older sister,” King said.

After obtaining her bachelor’s in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology at UF, King taught high school chemistry and biology at Eastside High School, while pursuing her master’s degree in special education at the College of Education. Her plans then changed when a faculty member advised her to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction specializing in Science Education, rather than applying to medical school.

Since then, she has wanted to give back to the Gainesville community and foster community growth and relationships, especially for those in areas that are high in need.

“In Gainesville, Florida specifically, I never understood how children could live within five miles of a top research institution but never have the opportunity to step foot on the campus,” King said, “There is no excuse for Gainesville to still lead the nation in income inequalities and other disparities when the community can come together in ways that are mutually beneficial.”

After moving to the Atlanta, Georgia area last year to become a faculty member at Georgia State University, King remains passionate and dedicated to continuing the I AM STEM camp program here in Gainesville. It was implemented at the Caring and Sharing Learning School, where more than100 families have taken part in the program.

“UF’s College of Education opened my eyes to the research behind the inequities and disparities that I experienced as a teacher in East Gainesville,” King said “I applied what I learned from my coursework to grow the program, for example, I learned the importance of developing culturally competent teachers and providing a curriculum that was culturally relevant.”

King’s efforts to improve the education of the children of Gainesville is inspiring and she hopes that other communities will implement similar programs to help their children get access to the early education that they deserve. As for advice for future EduGators, King says to never give up, no matter how unrecognized your efforts are.

“Never grow weary in well doing,” King said, “This field is not glamorous and many times you will work tirelessly without recognition and applause but do the work anyway and use your gifts and talents to bring joy to others.”

We applaud King and all the teachers at I AM STEM for continuing their passions to mentor and guide young children of color within the community.

“The vision is so much bigger than any one individual,” King said “I AM STEM is about building bridges, changing mindsets and creating opportunities.”