Teaching Engineering to St. Louis Adolescents (TESLA) inspires students in STEM

As the school year draws to a close and a wave of soon-to-be graduates prepares for life outside the walls of Washington University in St. Louis, one student group knows that changing the world doesn’t have to wait until after Commencement.

Nicholas Okafor

It all began at Brittany Woods Middle School in 2012 with Nicholas Okafor, a now junior majoring in mechanical engineering and sustainable development in the School of Engineering & Applied Science. Joining a university-wide partnership with the middle school, Okafor channeled his passion to help instill a love for science, engineering, technology and math (STEM) in the next generation. The program focused on engaging students in hands-on learning, especially those who represented ethnic and gender minorities in STEM.

“I remember one student. He would just have a glow on his face every time he brought back a project,” Okafor said. “The students were inquisitive and creative, and they had a lot of potential.”

Before long, what started as him and a friend working with students on STEM projects once a week quickly transformed into something so much more.

In August 2014, Okafor decided to take his efforts to the next level and become a full-fledged university club. He called it TESLA, Teaching Engineering to St. Louis Adolescents.

“A goal of TESLA is to provide support for other engineering students who are trying to do (school partnership) work,” Okafor said.

During his first two years of study, he realized that while there were many groups doing great work in schools, few of them knew what the other groups were doing. With that in mind, he envisioned TESLA as an effort that would help unify existing efforts in the School of Engineering and empower students looking to start new school partnerships.

“It’s growing, and it’s growing a lot faster than I thought,” Okafor said.

After just seven months, TESLA has over 50 students involved with a variety of connections to other engineering and campus-wide organizations. Partnership is at the heart of what TESLA does.

“The Institute for School Partnership (ISP) has been really supportive,” Okafor said. “Ervin Scholars and ISP were the reason why I got into Brittany Woods in the first place.”

By using the resources and partnerships already established at the university, Okafor realized that he could exponentially increase his impact and break down barriers for other students to do the same.

“A few weeks ago we finalized our fourth (middle school) site,” Okafor said. “There were two or three students already going, but through TESLA, they now have the backing and support.”

Okafor said that choosing to work with middle school students was no accident.

“Our reason behind working with middle school students is, when we target high school, sometimes it’s a little too late,” Okafor said. “At that point, they already have those biases in their head of what they can and cannot do.”

To prevent those biases, Okafor said that their work focuses on giving students the confidence to know that they can achieve whatever they want to do.

“I recognize my own privilege,” he said. “My dad was an engineer, and I was told at a young age that I could do this and be successful. We want to say (to the students we work with), ‘Yes, you can go into this area, and this is an area that you can succeed and flourish in.’”

In order to expand its efforts, Okafor entered TESLA in the YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition (SEIC). The competition supports innovative programs that address social challenges in non-traditional ways. The winner of the competition will be announced April 9 and will receive support from the Skandalaris Center.

If selected as the winner, Okafor has big plans for the student group.

“The support would allow us to scale,” Okafor said. His vision is to begin working with other colleges and universities in the area, starting TESLA chapters at each one. Because if there is one thing that Okafor understands best, it’s the power of partnership.

No matter what happens, TESLA will move forward with its mission to provide equal education opportunities to STEM minorities throughout St. Louis.

“We can increase the diversity of this field by giving every one equal access,” Okafor said. “Because your zip code shouldn’t be the determinate of where you go to college.”