Uplift, Inc: Community Engagement through App Development

via Flickr USDA Healthy App Kids


Leshell Hatley is a known agent of change in the District. She runs Uplift, Inc., a family-founded community development organization and founded the “Youth App” program, which teaches children how to build apps over the summer. A jack-of-all-trades, Leshell outlines her organization’s transition to a STEM education focus, her role engaging girls in STEM, and her participation in the NGCP network.


1. How did you get started with the concept of this nonprofit? What were your expectations?


Uplift is a family-founded organization, originally established in 1999 as a community development organization in NJ.  The original board of directors included my grandparents, my mother, my aunt, and myself.  The intent was to provide various a variety of services for vulnerable populations in our hometown - i.e. small children, youth, single mothers, older adults, etc in NY and NJ.   We offered tutoring and technology classes as well as support group meetings and services.  However, we did not operate around the clock.  It wasn't until 2005 (when I relocated to DC) that I decided to take the organization in a new direction and focus on STEM education.  The organization obtained 501c3 status in 2007 and was originally volunteer run and helped to create and strengthen technology-based curricula for other nonprofits service students of color.  Recognizing the need for consistent, high-quality, Pre K-12 STEM instruction, Uplift expanded and became a direct service organization, providing STEM classes on a regular basis.


2. How successful was your first year? How successful was your summer program?


Over the past three years, Uplift has achieved several major accomplishments organizationally and programmatically. Organizationally, Uplift won the 2010 MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media & Learning Competition, an international competition attracting more than 800 applicants, for the design of Youth APPLab. In 2011, the organization received recognition from Julius Genachowski, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission; the Congressional Black Caucus; as well as Black Enterprise Television and Magazine.  Uplift students have presented at national conferences (i.e. 2nd & 3rd Annual Digital Media & Learning Conferences) and the organization has been recognized as a model STEM education organization  by many across the country.


Programmatically, Uplift created Myles & Ayesha in 2009, two African-American cartoon characters used to teach basic STEM concepts and guide PreK-3 student learning. The Myles & Ayesha Black Inventors Match Game was published on the Apple Story and Google Play in 2012. Uplift's middle school robotics team won 1st place in both robot design and robot performance in the 2010 VA/DC First Lego League Robotics Competition. In 2011, Uplift completed Youth APPLab, a pilot project teaching 22 students mobile app development. Outcomes of this project included the creation of 30+ mobile applications and two students forming their own mobile app development company.  During the summer of 2012, the organization made history when eight teenagers became the first all African-American team under the age of 20 to create a software application for the XO (the One Laptop Per Child laptop); its called “WORD IT: A Vocabulary Activity.” Students learned the Python programming language and designed and built a working prototype of “WORD IT” in six weeks. This student team also created a version for Android devices.


3. How were you able to focus on recruiting girls for the summer and year long program?


Recruiting girls can be a challenge at times.  However, when most African-American girls see me walk in the room as the intended instructor of our classes (robotics, app development, etc.), they quickly widen their eyes and smile.  It's as if a their personal glass ceilings just shattered.


Once engaged (the girls and myself), we attempt to focus on and solve some awesome design challenges.  For instance, our Girls STEM team recently voted to create an environmentally friendly go-cart, electronic tshirts, and an 'original' theme-song.  Often motivated by the thought that whatever boys can do, girls can do better (a cliche that is often repeated throughout class), team members delegate tasks and work diligently to answer questions no one in the room knows answers to (yet).


Current team members are almost tired of hearing that there is a 'shortage' of girls interested in STEM.  They realize that our team meetings often have great attendance and often do not appreciate constant comments about their 'absence' from or lack of interest in STEM, when they are clearly in the room and enjoying every minute of it.


Once we get girls in our classes, they are typically engaged and enjoy being challenged.  It's getting them their in the first place that can be challenging at times.  Although we haven't determine a guaranteed method of recruiting, we do try many different approaches.  Between hinting that girls generally do better than boys in various STEM areas when we speak to potential students (a hint I received from a fellow STEM educator) and at times acting as if there is no gender-based issue at all, girls are generally intrigued.  Then it's just a matter of trying to fit our classes into their already busy schedules, arrange transportation, and decide on which projects will keep them engaged.


4.  Can you describe your involvement in NGCP?


Uplift became acquainted with NGCP after listing our Youth APPLab program on its website.  Currently finishing it's second year, Youth APPLab teaches middle and high school students how to make mobile applications (apps).  The program attracts girls as well as boys and provides a sound introduction to computer programming.  Since becoming a part of the NGCP network (of listed programs), we have discovered a great deal from the provided resources and have come in contact with many potential collaborators and partners.