We Connect the Dots’ new STREAM of consciousness

Dots matrix: We Connect the Dots founder Laurie Carey (fourth from left) and her nonprofit's Community Ambassador Team visited Microsoft's NYC offices this summer.

After a “year of growth and great progress,” STEAM-powered Westbury nonprofit We Connect the Dots is already gearing up for a big 2018.

Founder and Board Chairwoman Laurie Carey notes a 2017 filled with major advances for her five-year-old startup, a science-, mathematics-, engineering-, art- and math-focused 501(c)3 determined to level the technological playing field for underprivileged students.

But as progressive as 2017 has been, according to the founder, the industries and students benefitting from We Connect the Dots’ efforts ain’t seen nothing yet.

Already on tap for 2018 are the nonprofit’s third-annual international code-a-thon, scheduled for January, and the projected June debut of its 11,500-square-foot “STREAM” Center. The tech-loaded hub is coming together inside 1025 Old Country Road, the 115,000-square-foot building that also houses LaunchPad Westbury (Carey’s organization, which relocated to the LaunchPad in January, will move into the new space when it’s ready).

That’s not a typo back there: We Connect the Dots adds “research” to the new center’s STEAM engine, exposing students to a critical skill not always championed by public schools. That lack of focus on modern research techniques further widens the “achievement gap” that differentiates – both positively and negatively – college applicants, according to Carey.

“Today, a lot of the skill sets that are being taught are dated, and schools don’t really have educators trained in modern research skills,” she told Innovate LI. “So, now you have some schools that partner with research entities and some that don’t, and that creates an achievement gap.

“If students can work on a research project in their junior or senior year, that can be a real differentiator for them during the college selection process.”

To that end, the STREAM Center is being designed to serve as “an education partner that does the things your school doesn’t offer,” allowing students – both individually and through school-sanctioned projects – to practice research skills they’ll need to pair later with their science, mathematics and engineering acumen.

“It removes that variable,” Carey said.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t do so cheaply. The chairwoman estimates a price tag of about $500,000 to build and stock the STREAM Center, so her nonprofit is actively pursuing several fundraising initiatives, while collaborating with the building owners on a potential long-term revenue-sharing plan.

“They recognize the value of what we’re doing and the impact we can have on this community,” Carey noted.

Well before the STREAM Center’s targeted June 1 opening, We Connect the Dots will host its third-annual code-a-thon, in conjunction with learning centers in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina. Organizers also hope to beam in participants from Perth, Australia – the Aussies have participated in the first two hack-fests – but certain logistics are still being worked out.

Laurie Carey: Regional push.

The annual events – wherein participants ages 13-18 spend the better part of 48 hours learning to code websites using HTML, Java and other programming languages, plus Microsoft’s cloud computing platform – are proving popular.

In fact, organizers had an opportunity to expand the code-a-thon next year to other shores besides Australia – “We have other countries asking,” Carey noted – but ultimately decided to put further globe-trekking on hold for now.

“We kind of wanted to make sure we have a good flow and a good engagement with Australia before we add other countries,” Carey said. “This year, the focus is on adding more U.S. sites.”

The participation of the North Carolina site is “directly related to our initiative to partner with the City of Charlotte,” according to Carey. This summer, We Connect the Dots collaborated with the Charlotte mayor’s office, the Microsoft Corp. and two LaunchPad Westbury-based partners – strategic internship/workforce-development firm Savvy Hires and digital marketing startup Mission Disrupt – to create an ambitious “workforce experience” program for underprivileged Charlotte youth.

That program is “going phenomenally,” Carey said, and is one of the main reasons We Connect the Dots boasts more activity off-Island than on.

“They’re excited about what we’re doing, and they’re basically funding us,” she added. “Unfortunately, right now, we’re doing more in North Carolina than we are in New York.”

That figures to even out when the STREAM Center opens next year – a big part of a 2018 that will be devoted to promoting a nonprofit that will impart essential tech skills to about 1,500 students this year, all with “no outside investments and just a few small grants,” according to its founder.

That includes a $10,000 STEAM stipend awarded to We Connect the Dots this month by Arizona-based tech manufacturer Insight – a welcome gift, Carey noted, but not enough to carry We Connect where it wants to go.

“We’re still struggling with funding, obviously,” she said. “But when you look at what we’ve accomplished with just a few grants, it’s pretty impressive. We want to continue on that path.

“We always smile and say, ‘Imagine what we could do if we actually had money,’” Carey added. “We have proved our value to communities outside of Long Island. Now, we have to prove ourselves to communities on Long Island.”

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