Retired professional basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is shooting to get more Black and Latino kids into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)

Abdul-Jabbar’s non-profit Skyhook Foundation offers STEM camps to 4th and 5th graders in the Los Angele area. The campers usually spend four days and nights in the Los Angeles National Forest, where they engage in a hands-on science curriculum while surrounded by nature.

“We try to give them their first experience with science and let them know it’s not something exotic, it just takes application and they can learn a lot,” Abdul-Jabbar told CNBC.  

The camp’s science curriculum was developed in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). For many of these students, most of whom have lived their entire lives in the city, a chance to escape into nature is a way to develop a life-long interest in science.  

“Fourth and fifth grade is when many students are developing their interests, so if we can get them now before they leave us at fifth grade, we can retain most of those girl’s and those boy’s interests in science and engineering,” said Geraldo Salazar, a program director for the camp, in a video on the program’s website

So far, the program has reached over 15,400 students, according to its website. 

In California., the education disparity between Black and non-Black students is concerning. Last year, 77% of Black students who started high school in 2016 graduated, compared to 88% of white students, according to California Department of Education data cited in the report. 

There’s also a big disparity between white and Black students in STEM education. In the U.S., Black students are less likely to enroll in advanced STEM courses at the high school level, or major in STEM degrees later in college. Additionally, only 18% of Black students and 28% of Hispanic students score at or above average on STEM standardized tests, compared to half of white and Asian students. The pandemic is making the problem worse, with more students of color witnessing the largest learning losses due to school shutdowns.

Abdul-Jabbar, who called the disparities “a social justice problem,” hopes his nonprofit can help change that.

“It’s been very gratifying for me to see the light turn on with the kids, when they started to realize what’s possible and where they can go with this information,” he told CNBC.

The IEEE TryEngineering Summer Institute gives teens the opportunity to explore a variety of engineering disciplines through fun, hands-on experiences in a college campus setting. The two-week program, for students in grades 9 – 12, is currently scheduled at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX; Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, in Queens, NY; Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH; and the University of San Diego in San Diego, CA.

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