Connecting the DotsSep 05, 2019 11:24PM ● By Leigh Savage
Photo by Greenville Headshots
Steven Brown arrived at the University of South Carolina with big plans, but within weeks, he was on the phone with his mother, in tears, saying “I can’t do this.”
He knew he was smart—he graduated high school ranked fourth in his class—but he quickly found out that, due to attending financially strapped schools in rural Williston, S.C., he wasn’t as prepared as his classmates.
“Some kids had already taken engineering classes in high school,” Brown says. “And then some of us had never even heard the terms. It’s like if one school has iPads, and your kid, who is just as smart, has old textbooks. Then, they’re suddenly expected to operate iPads, and they aren’t prepared—they have to learn. They didn’t have those resources.”
Through extra studying and assistance from tutors, teachers and friends, Brown earned a degree in electrical engineering, but his lack of preparation stuck with him through a successful career in engineering at Fluor and GE. He wanted to do something to bridge the gap, and in 2013 founded the Simpsonville-based non-profit DIG (Dreams, Imagination and Gift Development), which focuses on providing STEM education and enrichment opportunities for youth in rural communities across all of South Carolina. Offerings include the DIG STEM Festival, a development and mentoring program, summer enrichment and much more. The program has grown by 900% in six years.
Brown says his efforts don’t just benefit children, but the companies located throughout the region that are struggling to build up their workforce. “These major industries in STEM fields might not be in these areas, but at some point, they will be,” he says. “And now these companies can not only give back, but reach back. If you want to reach employees, tap the whole state.”
He says Boeing is a good example of a company that understands that employees don’t just come from the Charleston area. “They go throughout the state, and it helps rural counties get exposure to aviation and engineering.”
The power of exposure
He knows firsthand the power of exposure, because it was a seventh-grade field trip to BMW that sparked his own plans to become an engineer. That “one day of exposure” changed his life, he says. DIG now partners with industries to help kids in rural areas learn more about STEM industries, which benefits both the kids with big dreams and the companies looking for potential employees.
As an engineer at Fluor, he got another type of exposure that clarified his goals. Brown wanted to see the world, but he was surprised when his first opportunity was in Afghanistan. Though that wasn’t at the top of his travel list, he knew it would be an opportunity for learning, and he worked with a program called Afghan First that trained locals on how to be electricians. He quickly made the connection between the Afgan people he met and the kids he knew back home in Williston.
“I’m not saying my area was like Afghanistan, but the people in their natural abilities were similar,” he says. “People who grow up in rural areas tend to be innovative, problem solvers, critical thinkers.” After a few weeks, the Afghan electricians were outperforming many of their teachers. All of these talented and gifted people, he thought, who just hadn’t had resources and exposure. His desire to change that narrative led him to create DIG.
He started with virtual mentoring, matching eight students with mentors—and all eight went to college, half in STEM fields. He then added the STEM Festival in Williston, which drew 4,300 people this year—almost twice the population of the town.
After-school programs are underway in Barnwell, Allendale and Bamberg counties, with several more communities in the planning stages. The programs have served 1,400 students and attracted 100 volunteers. “There is a dire need for what we’re doing,” he says. He recently partnered with S.C. Coalition of Math and Science at Clemson University to expand programs to six additional schools.
DIG receives grants and funding from sponsors such as Boeing and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, as well as private foundations and individuals.
Spreading the word
Next up: an ambassador program that will identify 200 people throughout the state who will build relationships and spread the word about DIG to their personal networks. “If we’re going to change the narrative, it’s through connective effort, not by waiting on the state or a town or school district,” Brown says.
Eventually, he’d like to open the DIG Center, a multi-purpose community building that would house programs, including the after-school program, and would also be a home base for industries that want to build connections in the area. Training and even telehealth could be based there as well.
Brown, who was named 2018 Black Engineer of the Year and won a 2019 Jefferson Award, is on hiatus from engineering work to grow the program. He is focusing on showing the effectiveness of a rural STEM ecosystem he’s created and providing access for industries or state groups.
In his talks about STEM, he sometimes mentions a reproduction of the Mona Lisa composed entirely of dots. Many people can immediately see the Mona Lisa and can easily connect the dots. “But if you give the same page to someone who may be as smart as you, or even smarter, but they have never been exposed to the Mona Lisa, they don’t know.”
For Brown, nothing is more fulfilling than making sure all the kids who grew up just like him have the background knowledge that lets them to connect the dots.