Underrepresented Students Gain Early Access to Ag and STEM through Innovative Program

Photos provided by ARLCS

By Pamela Acosta

Wendell Scales and the folks at Arkansas Lighthouse Charter Schools are on a mission. The team at ARLCS wants to provide underrepresented students a pathway into the agricultural and STEM industries. Their ultimate goal? To ensure that students in the BIPOC community are exposed to the industry and the possibilities the future of agriculture brings as it merges with technology. 

And ARLCS is already making headway to reach their goal. 

The school recently competed for the biggest award in American education, the $1 Million Yass Prize. The competition celebrates the country’s top education providers which best demonstrate the STOP (Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding, Permissionless) principles. The annual award was established in 2021 to reward educators who delivered exceptional experiences for students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The school was selected as one of 32 semi finalists who received a $200,000 grant. Scales, deputy director of innovation at ARLCS, represented the school during an accelerator program and pitch competition this past December in New York City. And the Yass Prize was only the beginning. 

“We’re just really excited about what opportunities are out there with this development,” said Scales. “And we know that this is just the beginning. We know these are foundational pieces and when we look back, our goal is to plant seeds, no pun intended. But I do believe that we have the opportunity to really be a flagship for Arkansas, in our own way, with this diverse population.”

The organization has created a pathway that extends from K-8 to 12th grade to support underrepresented populations, specifically Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The program provides leadership development, scholarship exposure, and leadership institutes, with seventh and eighth graders already earning scholarships of up to $1,000. 

ARLCS is now leaning on funds like the Yass Prize, and other dedicated partners to build out this unique pathway in an urban population.

They have also partnered with a company that offers a platform where students can learn soft skills training and earn a “wage” for completing tasks on the platform. This allows students to gain early awareness and exposure to different industries, and empowers them with the ability to earn money. 

With all that’s happening, the organization wants to make sure that there is an education option that supports underrepresented BIPOC in an urban space, and an industry that’s underrepresented.

Scales is driven by his own life experience. His grandfather was a sharecropper, his mom chopped cotton, and he worked in agriculture when he was younger. But he never saw a direct touch point to the industry, he said. 

“When I was growing up, I worked in agriculture. I loaded crop dusters, but due to the stigma of race and agriculture, I never saw a pathway through agriculture,” he said. “But now, with STEM and technology, someone can be at a command center, operating a drone that’s 200 yards, 200 miles away, plotting points for the row crops, fertilizing and doing all of these innovative things that we didn’t have the capability of doing.”

Scales also believes agriculture is a vital industry that touches everything in someone’s daily life, from the clothes they wear to the food they eat. And, as Scales mentioned, the industry has also changed dramatically in recent years and it continues to evolve as new technologies change the way agriculture is managed. And that’s the kind of future and technology ARLCS wants its students to experience. 

“With everybody trying to align themselves with this 2050 goal of how do we sustainably feed and clothe 10 billion people by 2050, that’s going to require a talented, diverse population of new students and innovative solutions for the jobs that aren’t even here yet.”

One way ARLCS is providing its scholars with early access to the STEM and agricultural workforce is through their summer program, which the group hopes to extend further. 

The Summer Enrichment Academy is a unique program that leverages the state’s industry to provide educational opportunities for students during the summer. The 30-day program focuses on project-based learning and field experiences, with a goal of becoming the state’s first K-12 AG STEM school. 

The program is run in partnership with the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, and serves a diverse group of underrepresented populations, many of whom are experiencing the campus and farm for the first time. In the second year of the program, a three-day, two-night residential component was added in collaboration with Bumpers and Crystal Bridges, where seventh and eighth graders got to spend dedicated time doing research, working in poultry science, and collaborating with industry leaders. The program is now in its third year and continues to provide opportunities for students to gain early exposure in these fields.

“We’re committed to aligning ourselves with the state’s largest industry to ensure that they can have one economic development and wealth generation, wealth generating opportunities, but be a part of helping solve those bigger problems,” said Scales.

Scales added that he is proud to be a part of the changing landscape of the agricultural industry.

“It’s a badge of honor to have participated in the Yass Prize Competition. We were the only Arkansas School represented and not only that, but it was an Arkansas School headed by Black and Brown exec staff leading these efforts in an underrepresented community serving the underrepresented BIPOC population.”

For more information, visit the Arkansas Lighthouse Charter Schools and their Facebook page.