A “YMCA for Scientists” Lets Kids and Teens Tackle Real Problems in Real Labs

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ECOTEK students Noah Harris, 8, and Amir Muhammad, 10, doing measurements for their wind turbine project. (Courtesy Keith Young)

When Keith Young was a young father shepherding his three children through the Detroit public school system, he felt something was missing.

The students are working on issues ranging from robotics to 3D printing to finding a cure for a rare form of cancer.

“What I’d observed was a gap between the resources that were being offered to university-level folks and in the professional ranks compared to what had been offered to kids in K-12, and in particular, the ones that were in urban and rural communities,” he recalls. “There was always a Boys and Girls Camp, always a YMCA. There was never a YMCA for scientists.”

Thus, the concept of ECOTEK Lab was born. Young’s vision was to narrow that gap — by financing pop-up labs for students who want to find a scientific solution to hard-to-solve problems that can be found in their own backyards. 

He began in 2005, guiding his own children through foundational experiments for eventual startup companies, focusing on climate change, DNA, making biofuels and other fields of research. In addition to the labs, Young says ECOTEK has also reached young people by way of field trips, science fairs, and in-class demonstrations at schools. Young considers himself a venture capitalist, lending resources to kid and teen scientists. 

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Keith Young, foreground, is the founder of ECOTEK. Behind him, from left, are his daughter, Amber, son, Keith Jr., and ECOTEK students Emmanuel Jefferson and Antoine Crews. (Courtesy Young)

In 2008, he took a group of six students from Detroit who had been researching brownfields, or previously developed land that’s now vacant, and how they affect climate change; their work culminated in a research trip to Cape Town, South Africa, and participation in a conference there.

Today, he’s helping transform the lives of around 250 student scientists across the country in places like Detroit, Florida and Maryland. Those students are working on issues ranging from robotics to 3D printing to finding a cure for a rare form of cancer.

Participating students do not receive a grade — “they have to have passion to do the work.” To take part, students must complete an application process and pay a small fee to use the lab, which is based on family resources, Young says. Students usually work in groups of two to three and are matched with a STEM mentor who can help when they run into research roadblocks.

In one lab in Detroit, a trio of teens is working to develop battery technology for smart mobility along with microbial fuel cells. In another lab, students focus on plant-based drug discovery. One of their projects is using plant DNA to better understand how the breast cancer gene mutation called BRCA1 works in the human body. In the African American population, about 35 percent of women with triple-negative breast cancer test positive for this mutation, and they usually don’t learn of their diagnosis until the cancer has spread.

ECOTEK students have also had a slightly larger audience – the United Nations.

A third Detroit-based lab is led by Keith Young’s daughter and one of ECOTEK’s original students: Founder Briana Young, 23, runs a spin-off business called SmartFarms, which works on food security and developing food safety systems for urban farming using advanced drone technology and biochemical sensory systems. According to a recent report, more than 30,000 Detroiters don’t have access to a full-service grocery store, and 48 percent are considered food insecure.

“We don’t tell them which subjects to do – that’s why [the labs] are not working on the same thing,” explains Young. “We’re trying to give student scientists a place to find their way.”

The gap that Young noticed for urban students exists also among rural communities, and the problems they face are different. Students in a lab in Polk County, Florida, decided to tackle citrus greening, a bacterial disease that causes citrus fruit to bear bitter-tasting and underdeveloped fruit. The culprit is the Asian psyllid, a pest common to citrus plants. The problem is so pervasive that it’s caused a precipitous decline in the industry, which had been a major one in Polk. At Bok Academy in Lake Wales, also in Florida, students are using drones to get an overhead view of the patterns they can detect to better understand which trees to treat and when.

“With the majority of our area dependent on citrus and various other crops, why not get students involved in problem-solving and research that’s going to truly make a difference?” says David Lockett, a STEM facilitator at Bok Academy.

To this end, the students have shared their findings with scientists at the University of Florida and a research lab in Colorado.

A young woman who started in ECOTEK as an elementary-school student will now, at age 24, return to run the research arm of the company.

ECOTEK students have also had a slightly larger audience – the United Nations. The Detroit students have traveled to New York since 2013 to share their learnings with international diplomats from countries like Belize, Cuba, and Antigua. 

The students’ hands-on experience in the lab often inspires them to pursue academic success across the board at school. Young says that graduating students usually receive an average of $150,000 in college scholarships and score an average of 1450 on the SATs and in the 90th percentile on ACT tests.

Young plans to continue his work to develop these scientists, and after having invested “millions” of dollars of his own money, he’s now seeing the fruits of his labor come full circle. A young woman who started in ECOTEK as an elementary-school student will now, at age 24, return to run the research arm of the company.

“It was,” he says proudly, “a 14-year investment payback.”

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