Thunder joins the Urban League to make STEM a priority for underserved communities

By Michael Kinney

Dr. Valerie Thompson has been with the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City for quite a while. She has been with the organization for 30 of its75 years in existence.

During that time, it has been at the forefront of helping the minority and impoverished communities in Oklahoma City.

“The Urban League is celebrating 75 years of being in the community. We are the subject matter experts when it comes to African Americans, serving the African American population, minorities and the poor, particularly,” Thompson said. “What we do is everything from helping those that are hardest to employ find employment, we are helping people find affordable housing.

“We are very into what they used to call advocacy, but they now call social justice.”

One of the areas in helping to create social justice is being able to put minorities and low-income kids on the same level playing field as their peers in other socio-economic groups.

“We help those in education, particularly our young kids succeed in education,” said Thompson.

Yet, one of the biggest challenges Thompson has faced is getting the students who attend the Urban League interested in subjects such as science, technology, engineering and math. Or as it has become known, STEM. Thompson says that is hurting the potential they will have in the future career market.

“The challenge comes in our community,” Thompson said. “Really sharing the importance of math and science and how it touches so many different careers. It’s taught in school, but we don’t really think about the pathways to get to be an engineer or how to be an architect or how to be a doctor and so, or how to be a computer scientist. I can go on and on. But early on, really introducing the concept to our children of what it takes to be an engineer. You can’t do calculus or start thinking about calculus when you’re a senior in high school. It has to start early. It really has to start in elementary school and we don’t do a good job of that.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, African-Americans received just 7.6 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees and 4.5 percent of doctorates in STEM.

After college, the numbers do not improve with just 9 percent of the STEM workforce coming from African-Americans.

Thompson says it starts with breaking down the barriers that have been put up in institutions and in the student’s heads.

“What happens with particularly African American kids, the unfamiliarity of what math and science look like seems scary. If you can teach them early on that math is not scary, that science is not scary,” Thompson said. “You do math when you play football, you do math when you play basketball. It’s the same concept. Math is not scary. Science is not scary. We need to point them in the right direction so they can have the right career path.”

That is why the Urban League has partnered with the Oklahoma City Thunder to help foster an interest in STEM by creating the Thunder Integrated Learning Lab. It was unveiled at the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City on May 26.

“They recognize that stem is a challenge in the African American community. So, what they have done is they have helped us design one of our classrooms into a Stem room technology room that we can help our kids learn more about STEM,” Thompson said.

The first people to see the lab after it was completed were the ones who will be using it the most. A dozen students who come to the Urban League throughout the week toured their new lab as staff members and members of the Thunder organization looked on.

It took a few moments for the students to grasp just what they were looking at.
“At first I think they were scared,” Thompson said. “They didn’t know what it was, which points again, to the exact example that we have to introduce these concepts to our young people. And so it starts by us having the discussions with them, putting things in front of them. They can go back and tell their siblings and their parents, why they’re interested, what they’re doing and why it’s so important. So hopefully we’re creating a generation of young people that can pass it along.”

The room will provide a Thunder-inspired collaborative space, where students will be able to explore computer science, data, and technology.

In addition to the room being repaired and painted, the Thunder provided new technology, including robotic and other coding system equipment, which the Urban League Students were most excited about.

The renovation is one of 50 new Live, Learn or Play Centers created by the NBA during the 2021-22 season. Each team in the league created at least one community project to highlight the initiative.

Thunder Vice president Christine Berney said the Thunder know how important STEM is to the African-American community and that is why the franchise chose to make it central to their contribution

With both the NBA and the Urban League of Greater Oklahoma City celebrating 75 years, Berney said it was a natural fit.

However, Thompson knows the lab is just the first step in a long journey.

“I think the most important thing is passing along is the importance of stem for our community,” Thompson said. “It’s not just about the kids. It’s about our parents, our teachers, our clergy, men, everyone in this community talking about the importance of science, math, engineering and technology.”

Story & Photos: Michael Kinney Media

IG: mkinneymedia

Twitter: MKinneyMedia

Youtube: Michael Kinney Media

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