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Ph.D. Candidate Starts STEM Summer Camp to Empower Children, Teens in Foster Care

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As a kid, Daniel Kelly, a Ph.D. candidate in technology education at NC State, was a ward of the state and lived in a group home. As a teacher, he saw that children and teens in the foster care system were an invisible population in schools.

He realized foster kids needed strong advocates. He wrote a book about his experiences, “Falling Down.” With proceeds from the book, he started a nonprofit, The PUSH Initiative, which provides support for organizations that work with underserved children and families.

Now, with the help of Breanna Autry, an undergraduate student in technology education at NC State, he has started an outreach program he has long wanted to start: a summer camp that connects children and adolescents in the foster care system with STEM fields.

Hosted by the Department of STEM Education, the one-week STEM Explorers Summer Camp Program begins Monday, Aug. 7, and will be held in Poe Hall, home of the College of Education. Kelly and Autry designed the camp for rising seventh, eighth and ninth graders who are in foster care.

“These kids are incredibly strong and are the hardest group to identify,” said Kelly, who was encouraged to finally start the camp after Autry approached him about volunteer opportunities. “Having a program dedicated to them, to empower them, is the focus of the STEM Explorers Summer Camp Program.”

Kelly and Autry will teach the students from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. They will immerse the campers in hands-on and engaging STEM educational activities, including electronics, programming, and 3-D printing to help them understand and build confidence in STEM skills.

Partners include the Army Corps of Engineers and the North Carolina State Parks Service at Falls Lake, which will host the campers Friday, Aug. 11, at Falls Lake in Wake Forest. NC State’s Hunt Library, The FREEDM Center and Power America will also provide tours of their facilities.

Kelly’s nonprofit is co-sponsoring the camp, along with Mercy for America’s Children, and with support from the Epsilon Pi Tau National Society.

Kelly talked with about his experiences, his work and the camp, which he hopes becomes an annual offering.

What do you hope the students who participate in the STEM Explorers Summer Camp get out of the experience?

Empowerment and exposure to the variety of educational and career opportunities under the STEM umbrella. And frankly, to have fun while learning.

You also founded the PUSH Initiative. Why did you start the nonprofit?

To assist groups working with at-risk and underserved students and families. We are expanding to outreach and have recently incorporated the Initiative for Innovative Educational Research under our umbrella. With the expanding opioid crisis, foster care services are well beyond capacity and the number of children in foster care has doubled in recent years in North Carolina. These children age out of the system with $500 and the clothes on their back. Our goal is to do what we can to address this growing crisis. Only half of foster kids graduate high school, and college is an unreachable idea for most. We hope to change this.

What drew you to work with at-risk and underserved students and families?

When I taught in Durham, I saw what these families want to provide to their children but either can’t or don’t know how. When I was a teenager, I was a homeless high school dropout while my parents lived on a lake. I came from a family with the resources to provide a solid education and opportunities, but circumstances sent me in a far different direction.

The families I have worked with often have a far different path in front of them. They want the best for their children but don’t know how to provide it. They don’t have the resources to give their children the opportunities squandered by many who do. I hope to change that narrative.

What do you hope to do with your doctoral degree when completed?

Research and teaching are my passion. I came to NC State to take a few classes for my teaching license. I stayed through a master’s degree and I am a few short weeks from defending my dissertation because of the incredible faculty and staff I have been mentored by and I am proud to call my colleagues and friends.

I have seen the power that research can hold and the opportunity to pass on what I have learned to the latest generation of teachers. I look forward to continuing that work.

What keeps you motivated in this work? Why do you do what you do?

I know that I have made a difference, but I am never satisfied with the scope and scale of that difference. I am driven by the support my family and especially my grandmother provided after she took me in after a pretty rough childhood. Her sacrifice will never be forgotten and I will spend my life and career paying it forward. I am motivated by the difference I know I have made and the prospects of making more of them in my many years to come.