Fifteen teenagers living together in a large house for eight weeks may sound like the makings of an all-too-familiar reality television show. But these youngsters weren’t chosen for outrageous antics: they were handpicked for their academic prowess in STEM disciplines.
The family audience reality show, aptly entitled Hood Smart: The Urban STEMulus Project, features STEM scholars from black communities across the U.S. who are competing in science, technology, engineering, and math related challenges for the ultimate prize, a full-ride college scholarship.
Ateya M. Ball-Lacy, the creator and executive producer, was inspired to create Hood Smart because she believes the media is not showing enough positive images of African Americans, especially teens. “There are so many dimensions to us as a black community and our experiences in America, and I started to wonder why no one was telling that story,” says Ball-Lacy, an educator who resides in Maryland.
“There has always been a focus on the negative parts. Through this revolutionary reality show, we intend to change the image of urban America by providing a platform for African American youth to observe, celebrate and ultimately emulate the academic prowess of their peers, all before a live national T.V. audience.”
Every week the high-achieving teens will compete in academic challenges while learning how to give back to their community in the process. The show will partner with STEM organizations that will tailor the weekly challenges for the contestants. “The reason for the show was really to give our children a platform to celebrate their genius, and that platform doesn’t exist at the moment,” says Ball-Lacy, a graduate of Howard University.
As an assistant principal for a middle school in Maryland, Ball-Lacy wants to go beyond her local community and touch the lives of urban youth across the nation. “STEM right now is big all around the planet and I really wanted to focus on urban students who are STEM scholars because it seems that we are not being shown in those areas,” she says. “And the quickest way to do that is through television because what they see is what they often believe of themselves, so if we change that image we can begin to change their mindset.”
Coumba Gueye, a student who features in the sizzle reel, says she always had a love for Marine Biology but did not think she would go far with that passion. In fact, she faced many trials at school that could have prevented her from attaining her dream.
“I am Hood Smart because I accept challenges that come my way and face them head on,” Gueye says. “I don’t like giving up. It’s not something that I do.”
Hood Smart is still in its early stages but Ball-Lacy is hopeful that once a pilot is produced a major television network will pick up the show for syndication. So far her biggest challenge has been funding her innovative project. “I pretty much paid for the entire production out of my pocket, but we know the money will come back to us because it’s just that powerful of a show,” she says.
But Ball-Lacy doesn’t want to just stop with the U.S. She hopes that once the series gets picked up and moves from season to season, contestants will come from all over the world. “We may partner with children in different countries such as Nigeria because Nigeria is big on STEM,” she says. “So I see it going international.”
Through talking with students about STEM, Ball-Lacy observed that on the surface many appeared to crave a career in sports or entertainment, but once she dug deeper she discovered their love for science and technology.
“It’s really great hearing the young people get excited when they hear there is a show that’s going to happen that will celebrate their intelligence,” she says. “Even they’re sick of the same old things in the media and want something different as well.”
Follow Helena Joseph on Twitter@helena_josep