The promotion of STEM-initiatives for young people of color are an evergreen need, something The Paley Center for Media has been aware of for a while now. While it’s technically been around since 1975 hosting hardcopy archives under its former name The Museum of Broadcasting (later The Museum of Television & Radio, its monikers have generalized with the times), The Paley Center has been a prominent cultural institution with a keen nose for keeping up with the digital joneses. With the advent of digital conversion for film backup, the Paley Center now hosts a massive archive of over 160,000 indexed videos, browsable for a suggested donation cost to the museum-going public. On December 2nd, they hosted “From STEM to Screen: Inspiring Tomorrow’s Creators,” bringing out approximately 100 high-school students on a Saturday morning, but they had a tantalizing ace up their sleeve: Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Lucas on Netflix’s Stranger Things.
This special program is actually the fourth such annual event devoted to on-screen representation hosted by The Paley Center, as an extension of their broader television event PaleyFest. Verizon sponsored the day’s schedule as part of Verizon’s Innovative Learning initiative. Through several planned activities, young people selected from a variety of schools in the five boroughs (primarily Manhattan, Brooklyn, and The Bronx) got to interact with McLaughlin, as well as a series of “entertainment mentors”; more on that, below.
Some brief welcoming remarks by Director of Education at The Paley Center, Rebekah Fisk, led into a keynote conversation with McLaughlin conducted by Alia Jones-Harvey, Director of Education & Workforce Development for the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment. McLaughlin himself seemed slightly jittery but affably relatable and warm, characteristics which enlivened the Q&A session. He described how he got picked for Stranger Things (recorded a video, then was invited for audition) and spoke about his personal experiences as a young actor to the audience’s avid delight. Watching from the back in the standing-room-only presentation theater, I noticed an inspiring back-and-forth: while the students saw a young, 16-year old African-American actor on stage as an admirable peer, McLaughlin saw his own sense of potential intimately reflected in the faces in front of him.
Aside from this dynamic, consider that the actor is also home-schooled, and possibly growing unfamiliar with morning auditorium teen crowds. In spite of that, he handled the scrutiny well, a skill he’s probably honed in more spotlight, flashbulb-dazzled venues and crimson carpets.
“This is my first time talking to young people about science…Just conversating with [a room of] peers, young people like me? This is my first time,” the actor reflected. “I have talked about science with the kids in Stranger Things, because there’s a lot of science in the show. In [Netflix after-show] Beyond Stranger Things, Bill Nye the Science Guy comes in, and talks about the different universes, how it entertwines. Maybe there are other universes out there…there might be another Upside Down, and there could even be our Upside Down out there.”
Of course, he expected worse from the audience. “I was a little nervous, because I was like, ‘yo are they going to ask me science questions?’” Short answer: no, I was the one who interrogated that front a little bit, wondering at the differences between study in a public school classroom versus a room at home. While McLaughlin mentioned “I like chemistry better than biology,” he learns primarily using synthesized, interactive versions of experiments on a computer, combined with day-trips to science museums and such.
When I asked him about his dream role, his response was instantaneous: “Miles Morales. I love Spider-Man, and if I got the role? I’d put 100% in it. I mean, I put that into every role, but I’d put 2000% into it if I got him.”
Following the hang-out with Caleb—a sizable portion of which, of course, turned into copious selfie-opps and group photos with the students—everyone was shuttled to the fourth floor digital library. Over the course of the next hour and a half, nine tables with eight mentors employed in STEM-related entertainment fields held court for a “speed-networking” rotation, ten minutes alloted per table.
For instance, Blythe Terrell, an editor at podcast purveyors Gimlet Media, spoke about the details of her daily work and outlined what goes into a podcast. Subjects like these, and their attachment rate with the range of age level in attendees, produced an variety of results and interest, though I would wager that about a tenth of all students eagerly took notes for each discussion.
Other mentors included a variety of representatives from companies like FuseFX, NBC, Nickolodeon, and Snap Inc. (a/k/a the developers of Snapchat). The latter two included especially vibrant participation, with Nickolodeon hosting two game developers with an interactive demo, and Snapchat featured Creative Specialist Michael Clemons, speaking with a demographic who probably uses his app the most. On this last note, there was an interesting clarification which he delivered to his groups, this idea that they represent marketing targets for which branding agreements and product developments are being specifically designed. I thought this was an important point that is not readily shared or seemingly understood by a lot of young teens.
As inspiring as much of the event was, there were also disorienting bouts of nervousness, both on the part of the mentors and the mentored. There’s probably a big difference between a producer speaking with a table of sleepy-eyed Monday morning executives versus ten penetratively insightful high schoolers on a Saturday. As for myself, fluttering around trying to not look like a conspicuous busybody, I tried to decide if I would’ve found a lot of this boring or engaging if I had been an actual attendee. But the energy in that room often felt somewhat comparable to McLaughlin’s presence, the notion that these working creatives are making a living on the same dreams as those of the students; ten minute role models laying out practical next steps for the coming years.
If Caleb was the pull for students to apply for group selection, an unexpected bonus at the end of the event made it all a very special weekend for a chosen few. Verizon sponsored a surprise contest which provided three free new tablets to the young people who were able to quickly and correctly fill out the answers to an on-the-spot quiz (ah, spoils to the note-takers!). Three girls scooped up those very special gifts and posed for photos with their rewards. Not too shabby for a sleepy Saturday.