New home, new partners for ambitious STEAM startup

Connect more: With a new Syosset space and an ambitious expansion plan, We Connect the Dots continues to bring coding to the people -- specifically, to underprivileged Long Island students.

It’s all coming together for slightly nomadic nonprofit We Connect the Dots, which may have found a permanent home – and has definitely identified some promising partners on its STEAM-powered mission.

The registered 501(c)3, intent on leveling the technological playing field for underprivileged students via extracurricular science, mathematics, engineering, art and math activities, is now occupying 2,500 square feet in Syosset, carved out of a larger commercial space swimming with children’s programs.

It’s an ideal spot for WCTD, according to founder and Executive Director Laurie Carey, who launched her nonprofit in 2012 in Cold Spring Harbor and in late 2016 led it to the confines of now-defunct LaunchPad Westbury, before landing on Michael Drive in Syosset this year.

“It’s a really good space for us,” noted Carey, who spent 30-years plus in the technology field, including a decade as a Microsoft tech strategist, before launching WCTD. “It’s kind of a destination location for parents seeking new and interesting programs for their kids.

“We want to be around these areas,” she added, “in communities where people value the type of offerings we present.”

Those offerings include WCTD’s increasingly popular smorgasbord of code-a-thons and after-school programs, all designed to introduce students in less-affluent school districts to the joys – and long-term educational and professional benefits – of STEAM subjects.

Laurie Carey: For-profit diversification equals nonprofit survival.

They also include the Nebula Academy, WCTD’s for-profit arm, which focuses on teaching 18-and-older college students and transitioning professionals the ins and outs of Amazon Web Services – increasing their annual salary potential by as much as $30,000, according to Carey, and “paying our rent” in the new Syosset space.

“We are offering an accredited course on Amazon’s content – our instructors are accredited to teach it,” she told Innovate LI. “We want to help build a future workforce in the fastest-growing career area.

“These are really sought-after skills.”

To complete this mission, WCTD has bulked up. The Gaming Studio, the previous occupant of WCTD’s new digs, is “transferring all operations to the Nebula Academy,” according to Carey, noting her organization is “absorbing” The Gaming Studio’s lease and equipment, including laptops and virtual reality gear.

“Between their equipment and our equipment, we’re taking a great next step,” Carey said. “Now we have a home that’s actually ours, and all the equipment can coexist to have a greater, more sustainable long-term impact.”

That home is about to get even more crowded. The Nebula Academy stands ready to announce a new funding partnership with “another entity,” according to the executive director, whose lips are sealed for now but promise big doings come July 1.

The skinny: an alliance with an accredited online high school, through which the Nebula Academy will present social and hands-on interactive-tech opportunities for students who, for one reason or another, attend high school digitally.

While WCTD does focus much of its programming on autism-spectrum children, the online high school alliance is not designed for special-needs students – instead, students who are heavily invested in athletics or specialized pre-employment programs, for instance, or those whose families relocate often.

Code read: And written, as WCTD’s code-a-thon participants rack up valuable professional skills.

The as-yet-unnamed partner is active in 34 states and will be making its first foray into New York with its Nebula Academy partnership – a great opportunity for both sides, Carey noted.

“The X is all the traditional academics – language arts, math, science requirements, taught by their online teachers,” she said. “Our facility will provide the Y – a social place for these kids to hang out.

“This provides parents with the comfort that their kids have a safe place to go and hang out,” Carey added. “And the kids can have hands-on learning experiences and meet with the teachers and counselors here in our space.”

It all circles back to WCTD’s primary mission, according to the founder, who said her seven-year-old nonprofit – which is on hiatus as it reorganizes its new space, with a January reopening in sight – currently supports about 1,000 underprivileged students each year.

“This is all about diversifying our funding in the new space, so our nonprofit can offer free programs to our underserved community members,” Carey said.

To move the ball further, WCTD will be hosting a Building STEAM Benefit on July 12, with Carey and her team showcasing the current space and a VR rendering of what it will look like once enough funding is raised, the proper building permits are obtained and an architect’s rendering for the redesigned 2,500 square feet is brought to life.

The nonprofit is eager to secure sponsors for the new space, Carey said, with a “smartglass” technology planned for interior windows not only capable of going from clear to opaque to provide privacy, but of projecting a corporate sponsor’s logo with the touch of a button.

“It’s much easier to brand a space with smartglass than with traditional branding,” Carey noted.

With plans for future expansions in other socioeconomically underserved areas and the July 12 event slated to include tours of WCTD’s new podcast studio and other amenities, it’s an “exciting time” for the startup, according to Carey.

“Our new partner wants us to demonstrate that we can scale these facilities across the nation,” she said. “That’s a big deal for us. The July 12 benefit is about letting people know what we’re doing, but also having them experience what we can offer.

“This is especially good for students who are serious about a career path in the technology space, or coding, or any type of online gamification,” Carey added. “But ultimately, this is about addressing the digital divide, and making sure all kids can come to these immersive programs.”