One of America’s top youth volunteers is making STEM careers accessible to a more diverse talent pool.
By Adam Hunter
The robots 15-year-old Aja Capel and her students build can follow complex commands, drive around, perform feats of strength, even battle other robots. But don’t worry—she’s not looking to build a robot army. Instead, she’s developing a diverse workforce of scientists and engineers that defy expectations—just like her.
Capel feels right at home teaching kids in STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. After all, the Urbana, Illinois teenager has been part of the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum robotics program since she was 4, when her parents sought an outlet for her habit of taking things apart. Born with dyslexia, dysgraphia and CAPD, all conditions that impair language processing, Capel found that STEM subjects were a good match for her learning style. But the first time she stood at the front of the classroom—filling in after the lead instructor was a no-show—she gained new perspective.
“As an African American girl, I was disheartened I was not teaching many kids who looked like me,” Capel says. “I began to understand there were a host of barriers minorities needed to overcome, first and foremost, believing that STEM was for ‘them.’”
Capel’s work to overcome those barriers was honored Monday as she was named one of the top 10 middle school and high school youth volunteers of 2019 at the 24th annual Prudential Spirit of Community Awards in Washington, D.C.
The ceremony capped a four-day event celebrating the top two youth volunteers from each state and the District of Columbia. Each state honoree received $1,000, an engraved silver medallion, and an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capital. The top 10 received an additional $5,000, engraved gold medallions, crystal trophies for their schools or nominating organizations and $5,000 grants from The Prudential Foundation for the charities of their choice. Winners’ projects ranged from raising thousands of dollars for the homeless or disadvantaged families, to building ball fields for children with disabilities.
Actress Viola Davis, one of a select few to win an Oscar, Emmy and Tony award, congratulated the honorees at a dinner reception and ceremony Sunday night.
Attending his first awards ceremony as chairman and CEO, Charles Lowrey thanked the honorees for inspiring others.
“As I read your remarkable stories, two words came to mind: inspiration and hope,” he said. “In a world that is so divided on so many levels, to see your creativity, your initiatives, your fortitude, your patience, your persistence, all the things you have shown, it gives me inspiration that I can do more, that we all can do more.”
Capel’s mission has had its challenges, but she’s persevered. After winning a $3,300 grant to create two computer programming summer camps for minority girls, she couldn’t gather enough participants. Undaunted, she developed a program for the fall, and went on to host 14 events at five different venues throughout Illinois, with a total of 138 attendees. Half were girls of color.
“I learned to manage my expectations and disappointment when it doesn’t go exactly as planned,” Capel notes.
According to the National Science Foundation, 84 percent of science and engineering jobs in the U.S. are held by white or Asian individuals. Only 2.4 percent of those jobs are held by African American women. Capel is doing her part to build a pipeline for diverse talent to get the education, encouragement and opportunities they need to excel in STEM fields.
In all, she’s totaled more than 250 volunteer teaching hours at Orpheum Children’s Science Museum, started four robotics teams as a 4-H STEM ambassador, and her organization, See Me In STEM, has provided more than 880 hours of hands-on STEM exposure and experience to kids, the majority of whom are underrepresented youth.
“My most gratifying moments were kids who look like me pondering ‘You do this?’ and asking ‘Can I do this?’ and, in the end, exclaiming ‘I can do this just like you!’” Capel says. “I have found my passion. When I am creating robots, promoting STEM and teaching kids, I feel invincible.”
The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, created in 1995 by Prudential and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, is the largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer community service in the U.S. Because of its success in the U.S., the program has since been introduced in other countries where Prudential has a significant presence: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland, India, China and Brazil. Each country sends top youth volunteers to the Washington, D.C., event. In the U.S. alone, the program has recognized more than 125,000 young volunteers at the local, state and national level.
Visit The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards website to learn more about the 2019 National Honorees and the program.
For pictures of The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program logo and medallions, visit spirit.prudential.com/resources/media.
For media inquiries, digital photos or B-roll of the National Honorees at the 2019 national recognition events, contact Harold Banks at (973) 216-4833 or firstname.lastname@example.org.