Why Class Matters – Making an impact through STEM in OKC and Beyond
It’s one thing to see an investment in oneself paying dividends for the future; it’s another thing to have the scope to see an investment in others paying dividends for the world’s future. That’s the vision of Class Matters – “Empowering our future, one teen at a time.”
Class Matters is an organization that started 10 years ago in Oklahoma City by Dr. Wayne Jones, Kelan Berry, and a man named Darron Lamkin, an Engineer at Boeing. On the surface, they dedicated the organization to increasing youth access and exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related studies, degrees, and careers, while also developing future engineers, entrepreneurs and leaders by maximizing individuals’ potentials. However, Class Matters is much more than that when one digs deeper into its mission. Class Matters is bigger than math and science; it is about life skills, character building, and empowering the whole person to make a difference in the lives of themselves, others and their communities.
Lamkin saw a need in his community, and he innovated a way to meet that need and undertake efforts to transform STEM in inclusive ways that significantly broaden participation.
“Ten years ago, there was a gap in broadening under-represented youth participation in STEM. The students needed to be prepared for the academic rigors and professional expectations. Hence why Class Matters exist as a pre-college STEM work-ready out-of-school program to help students navigate the STEM college-to-career pathway to promote STEM-related careers as a post-secondary option to high school students,” Lamkin said. “Youth crime rates are at their highest from 3–6p. In other words, from the time school lets out to the time parents get home from work. We wanted to give students an option aside from athletics, entertainment, boredom, or dealing drugs to be better for themselves and their families. We wanted students to unlearn false STEM assumptions and grow in their STEM knowledge, while gaining another method to support them with escaping their reality.”
Over the last 10 years, Class Matters has mentored more than 348 economically-disadvantaged students. Of those students, 328 have graduated from college or technical training programs, and of those students, 273 have studied in STEM-related fields. And the program goes beyond degrees and certificates. It constantly gives back and empowers future generations to continue the movement. Seventy-three percent of Class Matters alumni return as program mentors, high-earning employees and entrepreneurs. This built-in, generational mentorship provides resources to schools that affect academic performance, exposure and future opportunity.
Anyone familiar with OKC’s innovation ecosystem is aware of the opportunity Oklahoma has within its STEM industries, specifically in aerospace, cybersecurity and health sciences. Along with this awareness comes the knowledge of needing to keep Oklahoma’s STEM talent in state in order to meet the workforce needs of our STEM industries as they continue to expand. Out of all Class Matters alumni, 89 percent return to their local communities, earning well-above their parental income levels and making generational impacts in their families. This effort is not only keeping premiere talent in Oklahoma, but it is also showcasing our state’s talent on a national level.
Purely out of coincidence, Class Matters has also taken center stage across the country, being spotlighted for its programming opportunities. Expansion thoughts sparked when the organization began hosting “Engineering, Aviation, Computer Science and Tinkering Conferences,” also known as “A Day in the Life of a….Conferences.” These student-led conferences have gained the awareness of surrounding states, and those states have reached out to ask if Class Matters will provide the programming help to host these conferences in their own school districts. In retrospect, Class Matters is impacting 500 youth all over the country in 2021, with growth stemming from interstate involvement and the normalization of virtual meetings and distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another significant project Class Matters is working on is a mobile STEM unit. While not yet a physical shuttle, the unit is a movement that exposes under-served communities to educational, professional and physical-health resources to address the whole student (mind and body). It provides these needs by overcoming one of the most significant hurdles of communities,’ transportation, by going right to the source to provide programming at community buildings and gatherings.
The recurring theme that rings out of Class Matters’ approach is “leave it better than you found it.” To learn, grow and impact communities in a positive way, for the greater good and in a selfless light. Class Matters invests in individuals when others say it’s too late. Class Matters dreams fearlessly, and most of all, Class Matters reminds us that even seemingly small things, like having class, matter.
“We’re ten years in, and we’re in a position to go big and see what happens,” Lamkin said. “We will continue to do more, and as we do, we will continue to reach more. Why exist if you can’t make a quality difference?”
To learn more about Class Matters, or to support their efforts, visit www.class-matters.org.
How it Started:
In clubhouse apartments working with children of affordable housing residents and teaching how electricity works in their homes.
How it’s going:
Class Matters now offers weekly engineering, aviation and computer science pre-college-to-career exploration programming that uses a peer-to-near-peer mentoring model. The model involves vertical mentorship, where the Class Matters alumni (college students or working professionals) mentor the high school students, and the high schoolers mentor middle schoolers. Together, they host a student-led quarterly conference. The picture above captures some past and current program participants at the end of the year banquet, entitled “Recognition Matters.”
Special thanks to Darron Lamkin, President of Class Matters, for his time and help with this article.