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The world-changing potential of STEAM-powered youth

An Indigenous educator, inventor, author and environmental activist, 20-year-old Danielle Boyer has already accomplished more than most adults when it comes to increasing diversity,

Danielle Boyer, Founder of STEAM Connection

Danielle Boyer, founder of STEAM Connection

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The last time I profiled a young technologist working to change the world, she went on to be honored as Time Magazine’s first Kid of the Year. Just sayin’ — we know how to spot a rising star.

On that note, meet Danielle Boyer, who promises to be no exception. An Indigenous educator, inventor, author and environmental activist, Boyer has, at age 20, already accomplished more than most adults to increase diversity, accessibility and affordability in the STEAM education space — science, technology, engineering, art and math. 

If you care about accelerating an equitable clean economy, then you need to care about STEAM — specifically, the woeful underrepresentation of women and people of color working in these industries, and the disparate access to quality STEAM education that precedes it.

Research shows that having a diverse workforce not only drives innovation and market growth, but also underscores the significant risks of perpetuating inequities when people of color are left out of creating the products and services we all use. 

If we are to leverage the full potential of science and technology to address our most pressing global challenges, the people developing these solutions must represent society as a whole.

Credit: Drawn by Danielle Boyer, Founder and CEO of STEAM Connection

Image Credit: Drawn by Danielle Boyer, Founder and CEO of STEAM Connection

That’s why Boyer is working to solve this problem by getting to the root — ensuring that young people of color, particularly girls and those in Indigenous communities, have access to quality STEAM education. I caught up with her recently to talk about technology innovation and environmental education. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Shana Rappaport: Your work is rooted in the belief that ensuring equitable access to environmental education and engineering opportunities is a social and environmental imperative. Why is that?

Danielle Boyer: I believe that every child has the potential to be an Earth Innovator — someone who uses their unique talents, interests and skills to benefit our Earth. Giving kids skills in technology, engineering and science to use in their lives as innovators, activists and changemakers is so important. Us youth are the ones who are being affected the most by climate change, and we need, as I say, all of our superpowers to fight it. Each of our superpowers are different and can contribute to positive change, but we must be taught how to use them. 

Unfortunately, not every child has the opportunity to discover their superpower, because they don't have access to learning technical skills — skills that will not only transform their future, but the future of our Earth, too. Underserved communities are isolated from learning these important skills, leaving these kids at a huge disadvantage. 

I've centered my mission around providing resources to these kids with an emphasis on youth of color and girls, especially in Indigenous communities, like my own. I think that we all deserve to learn what our superpowers are and to be given the opportunity to use them.

Rappaport: Talk a little bit about the organization that you founded, STEAM Connection, and how initiatives such as your flagship program, Every Kid Gets a Robot, are designed to fulfill your mission.

Boyer: I founded the STEAM Connection in January 2019, which wasn't that long ago. Our work brings accessible, affordable and diverse STEAM education to children all around the world, and it has been such a cool journey. I work with a team of all minorities — we're all students in STEAM and we work to bring things like robotics, classes and more to youth. 

One of my favorite projects is called Every Kid Gets a Robot, which is a robot that I invented — it costs less than $20, is made out of biodegradable and recycled materials and I send it to kids for free in 12 countries, which is insane. The robot has been to more places than I have. I've used it to teach kids skills on everything from electrical engineering to computer science to mechanical engineering. I absolutely love the robots. 

Each of our superpowers are different and can contribute to positive change, but we must be taught how to use them.

All of these initiatives matter a lot to me, because I'm able to use them to supplement the environmental and STEAM classes that I teach. It’s been so much fun, because I've been able to reach tens of thousands of kids now, along with the 35 youth robotics teams that I mentor. 

One of my most recent initiatives is called Hands-On Techie Talks — it's a podcast that I started with my 13-year-old mentee, Vinaya Gunasekar, which is crazy — she's 13! We started a podcast for kids to bring resources for environmental innovation in a hands-on way to kids during the pandemic, and it has been so much fun.

Rappaport: What are your impressions of how Gen Z views the role of technology innovation in accelerating solutions to environmental problems?

Boyer: This is a really interesting question — because honestly, when I was 10 years old and got started, I had never used a computer before. Things have changed so much since I was a young kid. 

Technology now drives everything that Gen Z does. But, I often think that many young kids don't necessarily see environmental activists as designers, programmers and scientists. Many of them see activists as media figures who lead protests — and while that certainly is an aspect of it, I think that it puts them off because it may not suit their interests, or they may not see environmental role models who look like them. 

Showing kids that they can use their skills right now affects how they see themselves and their potential impact, and everyone needs to play an active role in our Earth. We need people to design robots that clean up oil spills. I believe in doing more than just advocating for a solution, but also being an active part of creating ones, too. 

For me, that looks like education that creates well-informed innovators with an emphasis on robotics — because, like I encourage my students to do, I'm using my own unique skillsets to do what I can to benefit our Earth. And I'm close to their age, too.

Rappaport: What kind of support can the private sector provide to you, and to Indigenous communities, either as corporate partners or as intergenerational allies?

Boyer: I'm always excited to answer this question, because businesses hold the key to so much change. They're able to solve so many problems that we see in our communities, and they have so much potential for impact — no matter the size of the company. 

I don't think you necessarily need to have an environmental activism program or initiative at your organization to make important change. I believe that people should start with supporting young changemakers in their own communities — and, on theme with our discussion, to use their own skills. For example, are you a financial adviser? Use your skills to help a young person who's trying to start their nonprofit. Are you in marketing? Help someone who is creating an online platform and needs to get their platform out there. 

To find these youth, I suggest getting involved in nonprofits that cater to students, especially ones engaged in Indigenous issues. We Indigenous peoples take care of 80 percent of the world's biodiversity in rainforests, and in community lands we store at least 24 percent of above-ground carbon in the world's tropical rainforests. A lot of people don't know that. I recommend checking out organizations such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to see how you can get involved and be engaged as a mentor, a role model and a leader.

Credit: Drawn by Danielle Boyer, Founder and CEO of STEAM Connection

Image Credit: Drawn by Danielle Boyer, Founder and CEO of STEAM Connection

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