Nonprofit provides STEAM education to underserved youth in Atlanta

Emma Riglin
July 28, 2020
Joe Lewis

Joe Lewis

IMAGE: Provided

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) alumnus Joe Lewis has had no shortage of success in his career. Lewis has worked in many locations since graduating from Penn State in 2010, but eventually moved to Atlanta to work as a Salesforce Solution architect at Accenture.

A Philadelphia native, Lewis first became interested in technology through his father, with whom he built computers at a young age. But when he moved to Atlanta, he quickly noticed disparities in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education that existed in the city’s school systems compared with what he experienced as a child.

So Lewis created Years Spent Manifesting, a nonprofit organization that gives children in underserved communities the opportunity to learn about and experience technology, as a way to give back to his local community.

“There is a deficiency in exposure that kids have to STEAM,” said Lewis. “I wanted to create a venue and something to help them push forward, see the world from a different lens, and achieve their dreams.”

Over the past year, Lewis has worked with local school districts in west Atlanta, helping them to expand their STEAM curriculum for students. He received a $25,000 grant from one of the schools, which allowed him to create a school technology center for students complete with virtual reality machines, laptops, gaming PCs and Raspberry Pis — all to help the students gain exposure to technology. Everything came together in January of this year, and Lewis was able to see the impact he had made.

“Once it was all set up, the kids rushed into that room and (I’ve been) told time after time that they don't want to do anything besides be in that room,” Lewis said. “They get to learn through experience; now when I go (to the school), they're telling me what they've been able to fix and figure out with the machines.”

Lewis has several goals for the organization, which include empowering underserved youth to achieve their goals through exposure to things they thought were unachievable before, further exposing youth and society to new cultural advances and different viewpoints of education, and providing a level of reform and support to disabled individuals in underserved communities.

The impact of IST

Lewis says that his expertise with both Years Spent Manifesting and at Accenture started in the College of IST.

“I see my College of IST experience as the basis for my career,” said Lewis, “then as the basis for which I could continue (to succeed).”

“As a consultant, I look at client needs and figure out how to use their money efficiently,” he added. “I enable that same mindset mentally when I'm working with the schools. What I did with the school and the technology room, in my eyes, it was a consulting effort, and (students were) the clients. Doing that stemmed from my education at the College of IST.”

Lewis said he chose the College of IST because it was different than every other school he had explored, and it offered unique opportunities that led him to where he is today.

“What we did differently than any other school that I remember was our exposure to real-life problem solving,” Lewis said. “We had professors who were part of the industry and they bought us up to speed and made us privy to solutions.”

“The biggest thing I gained from IST was exposure to the industry; at the time, there wasn’t any other (school) like (IST),” he added. “The IST program was one of a kind.”

COVID-19 and its obstacles

Lewis said Years Spent Manifesting reached its peak impact after the school technology center opened earlier this year, just before schools closed their doors due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. While Years Spent Manifesting has plans to help more students during the upcoming school year, the pandemic has presented challenges for the students the organization serves.

“My understanding of technology and tools that are available is more than enough to keep (the organization) going,” said Lewis. “However, the problem is not my availability; it’s the environment (in) which the students I'm serving live.”

Lewis notes that the problem the students face is that they can learn and work with technology at school, but at home, especially for an extended period like the past few months, they may not have access to the same — or any — technology.

“(I would like) to be able to send the kids laptops so they can (access technology) at home because that's the issue: when they get to school, they're away from home and they're able to tap in and keep themselves adaptive, but once they are back home, they don't have access to the same level of technology and support,” he said.

Challenging societal norms to help empower youth

Another current global issue makes the mission of Years Spent Manifesting even more relevant, according to Lewis — as the Black Lives Matter movement becomes more prominent, many Americans are challenging societal injustices.

Lewis said that he hopes that Years Spent Manifesting contributes to the bigger fight of advancement of equity for African Americans by helping to empower Black youth.

Recently, Lewis participated in a virtual workshop hosted by the College of IST discussing diversity in the technology industry. He shared that, in his eyes, there are so many layers to addressing diversity and it is important to talk about disparities and representation.

“An aspect that people tend to (ignore) is the idea of ‘we’ve brought X number of African Americans into our fold.’ But are (employers) really signing up to tackle African American issues? That's one of the bigger things that people need to look at,” he said. “There’s more than putting a number on diversity and checking the box. We have to really look at what they want to get out of their experience.”

Lewis added that he feels that recent public events highlight and emphasize the necessity of Years Spent Manifesting. “It highlights that there is a space that has been ignored, and I've taken the time to tap into it,” he said. “I'm hoping that others will continue to be of support because I think (my work) and the (Black Lives Matter) movement is the same fight.”

Last Updated July 28, 2020