When someone mentions STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) your first thoughts are probably equations and giant machines, but if someone were to mention dirt bikes you just might look at them funny. Brittany Young — a young black female engineer in Baltimore, Maryland — created B-360 a multi-award-winning organization that teaches youth about the wonders of STEM by applying it’s various disciplines to dirt bikes.
Carolyn Hinds: Brittany thank you for speaking with me today, I find your project B-360 very interesting and appreciate the time to speak with you about it. Before we get into B-360 can you tell me a bit about your background in STEM?
Brittany Young: My background in STEM is I’m an engineer so I have worked for a lot of companies like NASA, the Johns Hopkins physics lab, McCormick & Co. and Key Technology Inc. I’ve done everything from satellite exploration for Venus, I’m also a published author for an abstract in science, medical devices, and prototypes. McCormick was really good, one of my last [positions] there was in the kitchen so I helped work on the manufacturing processes and the increase in their techniques, but also create new spices and new foods which were really cool. So I’ve pretty much done everything.
So with all of your experience especially the mechanical side of engineering — what inspired you to create B-360 and make dirt bikes the focal point of the program?
Brittany: Being in engineering as a minority, then on top of that a black woman and then being from a city that people kind of look down on, and I was still working in engineering around the time of Freddy Gray so just the comments of people not understanding how we as students in urban demographics like mine are always perceived as negative. I’m usually always the youngest, the only woman and the only person that’s from a real city. In one of my first positions, they confused me for the secretary which was like “Oh, haha, no. I’m not the secretary, I’m actually the engineer.”
Two, I had a lot of really good experiences as far as my career, but personal experiences weren’t as good, so that’s kind of what sparked B-360. I’m working to increase STEM diversity but to also show students that look like me that we exist in this industry, and to show people who don’t look like me why it’s important to engage students where they are, as opposed to wanting to create curriculum or designs that have no basis on what the students want to engage with. Now I’m also a teacher, I work with a community college around STEM to get more students to work at NASA, but the issue was how to you get more students from these areas who have no clue about rocket science? Those who are really not interested in traditional ways of engaging in STEM but are natural geniuses and that is where the dirt bike part came from.
Because I grew up in Baltimore — I felt like Baltimore is a part of us and you know black kids in the city are a part of its history, but it was such a negative connotation with dirt bike riding. A lot of my students are eleven and younger but have been riding dirt bikes since they were maybe six or five and come to me knowing everything about breaking down a bike, how to repair it and when I work with older riders it’s the same thing.
A lot of them are either self-taught mechanics or are in the mechanics field now, so just again it’s about meeting people where they are and the theme of the curriculum that we use is based on dirt bikes because my students already get it. We’re relining what they know with what the engineering mindset is. We focus on engine design process the most because all of my students won’t grow up to be engineers, but that critical thinking and analysis that we have as engineers are always there, so that’s kind of how we see worlds colliding. We’re also realizing there’s a bigger issue which is the tech-divide because only five percent of all engineers are black and Latino, and also being able to address a stigma in Baltimore and other cities because they have urban riders but we’re countering a negative narrative with a positive one that works for everyone.
Taking into account as you said the negative way the dirt bike culture is viewed by larger communities, were there any other challenges you faced when starting B-360?
Brittany: I would say some of the larger ones, of course, is the legal aspect. In Baltimore, it’s illegal to own a dirt bike. So with anything like dirt bikes, people get nervous about it just because the press and media describe dirt bike riders as gun-toting criminals, as people that ride lawlessly without impunity. So whenever I mention dirt bikes sometimes people get afraid, but then once they get over that hump that “Yes, it’s about dirt bikes” then it’s really about education. I’m not in politics, we advocate on behalf of those that want to ride safely, we want to work with the riders, the police and the community because there is a place for this.
I would say the stigma behind dirt bikes is always the hardest for people to get over when trying to describe a program that works with a culture — that people who often fund other projects — have no idea exists is also the second problem. Unless you are from a black community in [places] like Baltimore, Philadelphia or Detroit you’ve never really experienced those things like urban street riding to know it was an issue. When I’m talking to funders or even investors about why it’s an issue for my community and more importantly why we offer a solution, they have no idea that this was on the radar of things to tap into. So I would say those two things; the stigma and then trying to make it aware to a demographic of people that had no idea this even exists.
My next question is related to film, with the success of Black Panther and more specifically the popularity of Shuri a young black girl who as we know is in charge of her own research and development STEM lab, have you noticed an increase in the interest of youth already in the program and those looking to join B-360?
Brittany: OH yes [laughs] which I was so happy to see. I finally got to watch it about three weeks ago, I was like “Thank goodness, it’s like how the comics were” cause I was doing my research. I think the first exposure was with Hidden Figures, that was big for everyone that wanted to get into STEM because you learned about Katherine Johnson and black women in the workplace and what we go through. But more importantly how there were three women that we’ve never heard about were there when the Apollo missions first got started.
I think that was the first serious push with black girl into STEM, and with Black Panther it was like “Oh yes, science is cool, Shuri is leading” so I’m kind of envious of her cause I wish that I had control of a lab. I wish that was me when I was younger, but for girls and boys to see, they had no idea what the code for Vibranium was, so now they’re looking at the [table of] elements trying to figure out if Vibranium is a real one, if it’s not, then what is it? I think for us that has helped a lot because of all of my students have gone to see it, but more importantly, they can identify themselves on the screen. Of course, she’s a kid, but it’s a black person leading this wave and then you consider her age and just everything she was doing, now they want to develop prototypes for their helmets and their own equipment just from watching the movie.
It really goes to what we’ve been saying that representation matters, but it also matters if you deal with a new generation like future Shuris and future T’Challas in a civilization that exists off of Vibranium and then they have the beginnings of a new technology venture. We’ve definitely seen an increase, and I know that more people will come especially because now I think Disney is launching the STEM center in Oakwood, but there are also plans for I think Baltimore and Philadelphia. So I’m just excited and waiting for all of this stuff to happen.
They’re already thinking about how they can sell stuff, how they can sustain it and how they can grow it. So just hearing this from not only ten and eleven-year-olds, but also my older riders that are students, I think that Shuri shows that you can create your own lane and there is no traditional way to get into STEM.
Following Black Panther is A Wrinkle in Time which is about a young girl who travels through space and time and I wanted to know if you read the book.
Brittany: [laughs] Yes, I read it in elementary school and was like “Finally!” I’m actually in the process of re-reading it and I should be done next week because I want to finish it before I see the movie since I haven’t read it in like twenty years [laughs]. But for A Wrinkle in Time, I was looking at the visuals and it took me back to being a kid and the different types of women that are on the screen. It’s directed by Ava and she is amazing when you talk about the film and I read her bio when she said she didn’t take the traditional route to being a filmmaker.
She didn’t even direct her first piece until I think she was like 32 and pick up her first camera. And again that just shows that you don’t have to know everything that you plan to do before you do it, but also some people have the natural talent and abilities that can be harnessed and grown and she shows that not only on film and on camera but also by her personal story. So I’m really looking forward to the movie when I’m done with the book and my students they’re also reading it too, now that they’re in middle school.
Where do you see yourself and B-360 going from here? What is your ultimate goal with the program?
Brittany: I have a lot of goals so I’m trying to think of which one first. Of course, we want to work with as many students as possible, also we want to hire dirt bike riders as instructors to change their mindset, so they go from just “riding dirt bikes” to actually being teachers. For us, it’s about changing how people view engineers, people in urban cities and demographics but also how people view dirt bike riders specifically because of the issues surrounding it.
Getting more students interested and seeing how many of them get into the STEM field, and so far all of my students want to do that and it was the complete opposite. When we first started they were just there to ride bikes but now them actually all want to go an become engineers so I’m really excited to see how many graduates from school go into the profession. We also want to get into events that show motor cross and urban riding aren’t really different, again this is a talent and art form we can display safely in different cities. So that means working soon hopefully with Baltimore, which is my main goal to show how in this organization we change perceptions of engineers and dirt bike riders.
Another goal is to see the law changed as a result of the work we’ve done, because again working with students that are eleven or twelve is good that there’s a vehicle that leads them to engineering. But once they become eighteen it’s also the same vehicle that hinders them from going into the STEM field because in a lot of the STEM professions you can’t have any kind of misdemeanors or interactions with the law so we want to decriminalize dirt bike riding itself.
To learn more about B-360 and the work being done visit the website at b360baltimore.org