State Honoree, National Honoree
Aja Capel, 15, of Urbana, Illinois, a member of Champaign County 4-H and a junior at Urbana High School, serves as the lead robotics instructor at a local science museum and has launched an initiative to give minority students more opportunities to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As a little girl, Aja loved to take things apart. “Nothing in my house was safe,” she said. “My parents enrolled me in robotics at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum at the age of 4, so I would take other people’s stuff apart.” Born with dyslexia and other learning challenges, Aja found that STEM subjects were a good match for her learning style, and she quickly excelled.
Aja’s teaching prowess and leadership skills were put to the test when the lead instructor failed to show up one day at her robotics class at the science museum. She volunteered to take over and was soon promoted to the job. But “as an African-American girl, I was disheartened I was not teaching many kids who looked like me,” she said. When she learned more about the racial and gender gaps in STEM education, she became angry and determined to change things. She went to work applying for grants and creating partnerships with groups in her community. She won a $500 grant to teach a two-day drone-building workshop for 14 African-American students, and later secured a $3,300 grant to put on two computer programming camps for 48 minority girls. In addition to amassing more than 250 teaching hours in her robotics class at the museum, Aja has started four robotics teams as a 4-H STEM ambassador and hosted 14 computer coding events as a teen leader in a national 4-H Google coding initiative. She estimated that she has had an impact on 200 young minority students and provided them with more than 880 hours of hands-on STEM exposure and experience.