Brittany Young knows that when many people see a dirt bike rider in Baltimore, they see a lawbreaker and a nuisance. She sees a potential engineer with natural talents and ingenuity. Like James*, a 12-year-old who’s been riding bikes since he was five and has always known the ins and outs of wheels and gears. Or Sarah*, a five-year-old who knows how to repair dirt bikes.
“Nobody has told [Sarah] that these properties are also called engineering,” says Young, who grew in West Baltimore watching dirt bike riders in Druid Hill Park. “When you look at people that lead STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] organizations or educational opportunities, they often don’t relate directly to the communities they serve and are not sure how to capture the audience. So it’s important to me to relate to them. How can we make STEM cool and more culturally relevant? We can show how dirt bikes connect to education, and how the things we naturally do showcase skills and talent.”
The “we” in this case is Young and those working with her organization, B-360, which uses dirt bike culture as a way to introduce young people to educational and career opportunities in STEM fields and change perceptions of dirt bike riding. Students in the program learn about the engineering design process, mechanics, robotics, coding, riding safety, and skills training. They create and 3D print model-sized dirt bikes and host events to ensure safety. Young’s OSI Fellowship will allow her to focus on hiring more dirt bike riders as instructors for next summer’s program, licensing her curriculum for sale to others, and holding public events to showcase safe riding and her students’ bike repair process.
Though there are many STEM job opportunities in the United States, just 6.6% of STEM workers in the country are black, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data. Black students like James and Sarah hear about engineering but think it’s just for white people because they have never been able to relate to the programming or had their attention captured, says Brittany. She knows B-360 has already played a part in changing that perception.
Take James, the 12-year-old who’s been riding dirt bikes since he was five. Brittany says that before joining B-360, he was fidgety and uninterested in school, only in bikes. Now his test scores are up, he attends all his classes, and he has a more positive view of himself and the world. He wants to be an engineer.
“I do see that happening for him,” says Brittany. “Our program gave him a voice to say, ‘I like riding dirt bikes, this is what I’m going to keep doing, and I don’t want people to see me as a criminal just because I do’. If we want Baltimore to grow, we need people to look at James as a future STEM professional that rides dirt bikes and not just a 12-year-old criminal.”
The problem is, many people do see dirt bike riders as criminal because it’s a misdemeanor in Baltimore to possess a dirt bike and to ride it on both public and private property. Whenever B-360 holds a dirt bike riding event, they have to go to St. Mary’s County or further – and pay for transportation, food, insurance, and other costs associated with traveling so far. Young is advocating with local lawmakers and the police force to change these laws.
“We need to acknowledge that if we want people to grow and change and thrive in Baltimore, we need to get more people like me involved in STEM and not discounting people just because we don’t understand them or where they may be from,” says Young. “One side doesn’t understand the other side. It’s important for my community to see us – I’m just a regular Black girl from Baltimore trying to make a change and that gives me strength.”
* Not their real names.