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Celebrities and STEM Education

October 5, 2018


With the emergence of the Internet, it’s easier for people to look for their 15 minutes of fame. Fame has become addictive and some people who gain a bit of fame fail to do anything worthwhile with it. Fortunately, some celebrities do pursue worthy goals using both their fame and money. Some of the worthiest causes are associated with education. For example, professional golfer Phil Mickelson and his wife Amy teamed with ExxonMobil to establish The Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy which trains teachers of third through fifth graders in innovative teaching methods and hands-on applications of math and science. A study found on the Teachers Academy website concluded that teachers who understand and apply inquiry techniques are much more successful in getting their students involved.[1] Another professional golfer, Tiger Woods, sponsors the Tiger Woods Learning Center that, among other things, lets Southern California students of middle and high school age explore potential careers in science and technology. According to the Center’s website, students “can choose from over 50 different careers such as marine biology, environmental integrity, aerospace rocketry, biotechnology and business entrepreneurship.” Those accepted to the Career Exploration Program are exposed to “opportunities to learn about careers through technology and hands-on projects.”


Another celebrity who believes in a hands-on approach to STEM education is pop star will.i.am. Kristen Castillo reports, “Most people know will.i.am as the frontman of the Grammy Award-winning group the Black Eyed Peas, but the singer is also passionate about education. The ‘Scream and Shout’ singer is specifically committed to STEM education, helping students as young as elementary school age learn science, technology, engineering and math.”[2] His passion for education led him to establish the i.am.angel foundation. The foundation has collaborated with the California Endowment to fund the “i.am College Track, a national college completion program that inspires and empowers kids from underserved communities to attend and graduate from college. The program started with 60 kids and now has almost 300, as well as a waiting list.” Speaking about the program will.i.am stated, “Our kids went from having a .72 GPA to now having a 3.5 to 4.0.” I believe these hands-on approaches to problem-solving and STEM subjects is important. And the results achieved by efforts like the i.am.angel foundation is why I, along with a few colleagues, founded The Project for STEM Competitiveness — a project-based, problem-solving approach to STEM Education that helps schools near where we live demonstrate to students that STEM subjects can be fun and applicable in their lives. We believe learning how to solve everyday problems will help students in every aspect of their lives.


One of the latest celebrities to get involved in education is professional basketball player LeBron James. Through his LeBron James Family Foundation, he opted to collaborate with Akron Public Schools to open the “I Promise” school. The inaugural class consists of 240 at-risk third- and fourth-graders. Ursula Perano and Nadeem Muaddi report, “The school’s curriculum was crafted with the help of Akron County educators, who say they’ve long seen their students underperforming in the classroom. There will be a focus on hands-on STEM education, with an emphasis on developing problem-solving skills. … Although the school is currently open only to third- and fourth-grade students, classes will expand from first to eighth grade by 2022.”[3] In addition to a first-class education, students receive some pretty exciting perks. They include:


  • Free tuition
  • Free uniforms
  • Free breakfast, lunch and snacks
  • Free transportation within 2 miles
  • A free bicycle and helmet
  • Access to a food pantry for their family


Perano and Muaddi also report James has “guaranteed tuition for all graduates to the University of Akron. In addition to those benefits, James has promised “parents of students will receive access to job placement services and help acquiring their GEDs.” Perhaps the most intriguing of those perks are the bicycles and helmets. For James, bicycles are a very personal thing. He told Jason Gay, “A bicycle, for me, was the only way to get around the city. If I wanted to meet some of my friends, travel across the city, go to school, play basketball — anything — the bicycle was the way I got around.”[4] In other words, the bicycle represented both fun and freedom.


Max Zahn reports, “Forty-three staffers will help run the I Promise School — including not just teachers but also a principal, assistant principal, four intervention specialists, plus a tutor, English as a second language teacher, music instructor, and gym teacher. … Classrooms will hold 20 students per teacher.”[5] According to Zahn, “The most unique feature of the school may be the most ordinary: it’s a traditional public school. Celebrities often back charter schools, like the Harlem academy founded by Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and the Detroit charter named after former NBA player and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose. Or they open unorthodox private schools — think Elon Musk’s 40-student school, situated in a conference room at Space X, where kids play with flamethrowers.” I think Zahn’s correct; supporting a public school is not only unique it’s important.

Collaborations, like the one between public schools and the James’ foundation, are going to be important in the years ahead. But we will need more than celebrities to help improve educational systems. Businesses, knowing today’s students will be needed to fill jobs that don’t currently exist, should play an active role in helping schools develop the skills they will need. Problem-solving will be high on the priority list those skills. In the meantime, we owe a debt of gratitude to celebrities willing to contribute both their fame and fortune to help deserving kids get a break.


[1] Mary Ibe and Rebecca Deutscher, “The Impact of Varying Levels of Science Inquiry Instruction on Student’s Abilities and Understandings of the Nature of Science,” Lewis Center for Educational Research, April 2004.
[2] Kristen Castillo, “will.i.am Sings the Praises of STEM,” Education and Career News.
[3] Ursula Perano and Nadeem Muaddi, “Lebron James opens elementary school, guarantees college tuition to graduates,” CNN, 4 August 2018.
[4] Jason Gay, “The LeBron James Interview About Bicycles,” The Wall Street Journal, 6 August 2018.
[5] Max Zahn, “Inside LeBron James’s New $8 Million Public School, Where Students Get Free Bikes, Meals, and College Tuition,” Money, 31 July 2018.

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