During a month in which schools around the country will open their textbooks to explore the lives of the first black inventors, scientists, or astronauts, there are six black and brown students who are turning the page, making a bit of history of their own.
These kids from the Bronx beat out more than 350 other teams across the country to create their own math app for Google Play. The competition, backed by Verizon, encouraged students to learn computer code and develop applications for mobile devices.
Their competition came from wealthier schools and whiter districts, but it was the work of 13-year-olds Rokiatou “Rokia” Sissoko, Michael Bonnah, Samuel Owusu, Sherly Quezada, Jhony Flores and King Lewis that prevailed above all.
“I was overwhelmed because I doubted that we would win. It was a long run," Rokia said. "And when I found out that we won, I was happy because all of the work that we did – staying after school, coming to school early.”
For their efforts, the students were awarded Samsung Galaxy Tablets and the Bronx Academy of Promise won $20,000 dollars. The students also star in a Verizon campaign that will run all month, in which they make a good point, “We can’t sit back and watch history, we have to create it.”
Rokia, Michael, Samuel, Sherly, Jhony and King were all mostly 11, attending Bronx Academy of Promise Charter School in New York City, when they started their journey of learning code and creating their app, QuestMath for the competition back in 2012.
The six of them were part of a Greek Mythology club at the school that they helped create. Selected by a teacher to participate in the app-making competition, the sextuplet combined their fascination of the stories of Zeus and Perseus with their love for math, engineering an app meant to help both children and adults brush up on their computation skills.
“When our teacher told us about the challenge I felt very proud that instead of picking other people she picked us six,” Michael said. “Because back then we were showing that we were capable of doing that, because of our work. Plus she knew that if she picked us six to be on a team we might do well because we all knew each other well and had good teamwork.”
African Americans are greatly underrepresented in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), making up about 6 percent of STEM jobs in the United States. And women, despite making up half of the U.S. population, account for just 28 percent of all adults working in STEM. Getting students interested early is vital in order to attract more black and brown students to the sciences.
These eighth graders, now big winners have big plans for themselves in STEM.
Rokia, who originally wanted to be a knee surgeon prior to the competition now wants to become a software engineer. Michael originally wanted to doctor (“because my mom and dad wanted me to”), but now he has designs on being a bio engineer, satisfying both the medical and technology fields. Samuel said he was already thinking STEM, looking at possibly being a computer software technician, but now he’s got his eyes on a sci-fi prize – making fictional super hero Tony Stark’s “Iron Man” suit a reality.
“To see all the effort and all the hard work acknowledged was really wonderful for them,” said their school Principal Catherine Jackvony. “To see how they blossomed from that point to now.”
Jackvony said the students, who she said were among the six quietest kids in her school, were speechless when they found out they won. But winning the competition seemed to help all six of them find their voices. Rokia went on to run for and win the title of student council president, something she said she never would have attempted before winning the competition.
“Before I was shy and I wouldn’t (consider) myself being student council president or any student council position,” Rokia said. “(The competition) was the start for my success, my future. Being student council president proves that I can do more.”