From Skyhook To STEM: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Brings The Science (NPR)

LA Johnson/NPR

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is taking his shot helping narrow the opportunity and equity gaps with his Skyhook Foundation and Camp Skyhook. The Los Angeles nonprofit helps public school students in the city access a free, fun, weeklong STEM education camp experience in the Angeles National Forest.

Every week throughout the year, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Unified School District, groups of 4th and 5th graders attend at the Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center, one of the oldest outdoor education centers in America. The hands-on science curriculum allows students to study nature up close: take water temperature in a stream, get soil or forest samples during a hike, study the local wildlife or explore the stars. That’s alongside the traditional fare of hiking, swimming, and campfire songs.

It’s so popular there’s basically a five-year waiting list for the camp in the city’s schools, where about 80 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch.

Having an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer support the camp certainly helps attract attention and financial support.

Abdul-Jabbar puts the spotlight “on environmental literacy and the need for students to be given the opportunity to learn about science in a place where they can do their own investigations and experiments,” says Gerry Salazar, director of outdoor and environmental education programs at LAUSD. “We don’t have rivers and streams at LA school sites.”

They do at Camp Skyhook.

I reached out to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by phone for details on the program and to find out what motivates him to advocate for STEM Ed.

You continue to have a really interesting, engaging and productive life after your NBA career, including numerous books and more. Why did you decide to start the Skyhook Foundation and Camp Skyhook?

I’ve always been an advocate for literacy and just giving kids tools that they can use to have productive lives. That’s so important. All the good jobs in the 21st century are going to be centered around science, technology, engineering and math. There’s no way around it. So if we can give kids an idea of where the jobs are and what they have to do to get those jobs, they can adjust right now. We try to get to them before they get pulled in various directions by peer pressure and popular culture. It’s so easy. So many of these kids, they want to be LeBron James or Beyonce or Denzel Washington. They think that unless they’re a star, they don’t have anything to offer. That’s not true.

We’ve had thousands of kids attend a one-week session where they do hands-on experiments in STEM. They observe the night sky, and they learn about water conservation and the effect of wildlife and the effect on wildlife by human interaction with the environment and animals and everything. It’s wonderful what happens there, because the kids get turned on to where to look and what to do. It makes me feel good just knowing what’s been happening.[Note: The camp also partners with NASA to help train Camp Skyhook staff, and the program gets help from UCLA’s Center X on the science curriculum as well as staff training and development]

What do you say to a child, though, that says, “Hey, you’re a basketball star. You did it. I can do it too. I want to play basketball and you’re telling me to study STEM”?

The thing of it is, you can do both. That’s the whole idea. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing your dream as an athlete. There’s been a lot of scholar athletes, and I hope that this is a tradition that continues here in our country.

Your camp and foundation focus on underserved or what some call opportunity youth. Tell me a little bit about who these youth are and what institutions and what people have underserved them?

These are kids mainly from the inner-city here in Los Angeles County. A lot of these kids can see the area where the camp is from where they live, but they’ve never been up there. They’ve never been out of the urban environment, never been very far away from their own home neighborhood. So we take them someplace where it’s a different world, and we try to open their mind up to different possibilities…

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar