- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - When she was 7 years old, all Shimira Williams wanted for Christmas was Legos.

Riding the middle of the pack in a working class Lincoln-Lemington family of eight children, Ms. Williams, now 35, knew the request couldn’t possibly make her more of an outlier than she already was. When her sisters collaborated on Barbie makeovers and her rough ‘n tumble brothers huddled for street football, she was usually off reading a book or reinforcing the structural stability of her latest Lego project.

So when her parents dismissed her holiday request — “boys play with Legos” — in favor of a set of twin Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, she did what came naturally.

“I buried one in the field up the street from us to see if it would mold, and I put the other one in the street to see if the 71D Hamilton (bus) would pop its head off and how far it would go,” she quipped.

“Let’s say that ended my mom buying me baby dolls.”

Surrounded by boxes of dismantled electronics, 3-D puzzles and, yes, Legos, in the converted living room in Lincoln-Lemington that serves as home base for TekStart Day Care — geared toward science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects — Ms. Williams embraced the memory as a catalyst for creating a sanctuary for the next generation of urban techies.

“If you like STEM, it’s OK here,” she said.

“When you are an African-American kid who loves STEM, you’re a weird geek to the rest of the African-American kids in your low-income neighborhood. You’re weird to the (STEM-focused kids) you want to play with because they say, ‘We don’t see that many African-Americans around here,’ and you’re weird to the kids in your neighborhood because they say, ‘You like to play with the things white kids play with.’

“It’s lonely.”

Originally founded in 2008 as satellite center for Lincoln-based Righteous Beginnings Learning Center — a day care center owned by Ms. Williams‘ mother, Rhonda Owens — TekStart has grown into a fully licensed child care provider that touts the fundamentals of science and technology learning to children ages 3 to 13.

Ms. Williams, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business economics from Penn State University and worked as a database analyst prior to forming the technical consulting business, Productivity LLC, said she has always wanted to create a STEM-based program for young people.

But when she started teaching preschool classes at Righteous Beginnings on a temporary basis, she never expected to take it to the level where she would need help from an additional volunteer or consider the idea of upgrading her home to include a maximum of eight children into an operation of her own.

For the six children currently enrolled, the decision to make TekStart a full-time endeavor means breakfasts followed by exploration of a “dramatic play bucket” filled with keyboards and smartphones before school, followed by iPad interviews with experts in STEM fields for the day care’s YouTube series’ “Lunch and Learn” and “What’s Cooking” after school.

It means a broken Nexus 7 tablet becomes a lesson on the inner workings of smart technologies. It means learning how the Internet works during field trips to Google and discussing traffic light sequences with PennDOT engineers.

For Ms. Williams, who put the day care under the umbrella of her home-based Productivity LLC, it means a constant juggle between the needs of enthusiastic students and paying clients.

Story Continues →