Keynote Speaker, Science Communicator, and Fascinate, Inc. Executive Director Justin Shaifer has a major mission: showing underrepresented communities that STEM can not only lead to a great career, but also provide fun, exciting experiences. He is doing this with the Magic Cool Bus, a crowdfunded project that looks to inspire and engage young students. We spoke with Shaifer about his ambitious project, the vitality of making STEM approachable, and the most important concept for the scientific innovators of the future.
Innovation & Tech Today: Tell me a bit about the Magic Cool Bus concept.
Justin Shaifer: We plan to fill a bus with cutting-edge immersive science and technology gadgets and visit educational institutions across the country exciting underrepresented (African American and Latino) students about STEM.
The Magic Cool Bus aims to solve a major problem for underrepresented students in STEM – initial engagement and mentorship. We target students at the critical point of STEM disengagement (middle and high school), show them that STEM is cool, and pair them with role models or Magic Mentors in STEM. From here, they have access to scholarship, internship, and career opportunities provided by our partner organizations.
As we continue to raise funds for the bus, we’ve worked with organizations like Microsoft, MIT Media Lab, 4.0 Schools, and various chapters of the Boys and Girls Club NY to engage underrepresented students in STEM.
I&T Today: What was the initial inspiration for the project?
Justin Shaifer: As an education entrepreneur, I perform workshops and speak to students across the country. I specifically target students of color and align STEM to their cultural context.
After one of my workshops, a young African American boy enthusiastically approached me. He shook my hand and told me, “I want to be a scientist like you when I grow up!”
I later reflected on his sentiments. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, IL, no one around me desired to be a scientist. My peers and I lacked role models in the science field. I considered how impactful the “big brother/sister” effect would be at scale. I wanted to ensure that our programs retained the hip and culturally responsive ‘edge’ that my previous work includes.
I&T Today: How do you believe the project will make STEM more approachable for underrepresented communities?
JS: In 2018 alone, I’ve discussed STEM careers with hundreds of black and brown students. I always ask students, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Time and again, students speak of careers with visible role models that resemble them. I’ve most commonly heard professional athletes, rappers, singers, and actors.
Students of color often lack visible and approachable role models in STEM. They frequently do not recognize how STEM is relevant to their everyday lives, recalling boring lectures or men in lab coats when they think of STEM. Our ‘tricked-out’ bus will challenge this status quo, changing their perception of STEM careers. This idea was co-developed by our team and hundreds of students in our target demographic.
It is important to note that we do not wish to be a traveling science circus act. We understand the fleeting attention spans of today’s’ youth and are developing methods – such as our cartoon series, increasing social media presence, and Magic Mentor program – that will retain student interest after our visit.
I&T Today: What made you decide to go the crowdfunding route for the project?
Justin Shaifer: When I initially quit my job to inspire students about science and technology full-time, I had few connections in STEM education. I realized that many early career STEM professionals of color experienced similar disengagement in STEM, but had no platform to voice their concerns or an established way to solve the problem for future generations. I wanted to show this group that we had a solution, and I figured I’d be able to find them on social media.
Our crowdfunding campaign has brought significant attention to the problem, substantially increased our volunteer base of STEM professionals, and provided our team with connections that have led to additional progress and partnerships.
I&T Today: What do you believe is the most important scientific concept kids should know more about?
Justin Shaifer: More important than inventions, gadgets, or fun science facts, are future projections of STEM-affiliated careers. It is highly likely that most jobs in the coming decades will require a base-level proficiency in STEM skills. It can be difficult to make kids care about how STEM will affect them 10-20 years in the future. Our programs take an unconventional approach to this challenge.
I&T Today: You’re also very active on your YouTube channel, discussing a variety of topics. What is your approach to creating a new video?
Justin Shaifer: I listen to the students I work with first. I frequently poll their interests, asking them what they think is ‘cool’ or ‘dope’. I also take note of how they socialize with each other because I want my content to be very familiar to them. Our ‘Hood Science episodes usually make underrepresented students audibly laugh, because they relate to the characters.
Another important consideration is the landscape of content that already exists on the internet. I try to uncover untapped approaches to science education. I always ask myself, “How can I communicate this idea in a way that only I could?” Frequently, the answer to that question revolves around cultural responsiveness. Simply put, I have yet to find a large quantity of educational science content that is designed for black and brown students, given their cultural context. In my opinion, most science content on the internet is white-washed.
I&T Today: Where do you see the future of Magic Cool Bus?
Justin Shaifer: We envision the Magic Cool Bus as a Batmobile in bus form. The bus would feature interactive educational gadgets that many schools with underrepresented students cannot afford. Examples of these are 3D printers, mini-drones, and VR experiences. The bus would have a solar roof and be fully electric. It would come complete with a surround-sound system and modular parts to be used for our educational programs. We are currently working with a 3D modeler and students in our demographic to develop a digital prototype.
Ultimately, we’ll push multiple buses across the country and partner with corporate entities to make our service affordable for all schools/institutions with students of color. We plan to partner with organizations across the nation that offer internships and scholarships, establishing a pipeline from our program into additional programs focused on deeper learning of STEM subjects.
For more information on Justin, the Magic Cool Bus, and joining the program, check out the links below: