Some of the engineers working in the oil refinery business in Beaumont, Texas, have done more than turn crude into gas. They've turned children into lovers of science and math.
Desh Bagley was one of those kids, and now she extends that love to a new generation at Tech PlayZone, a "high-tech hangout" in Riverview that offers hands-on fun for the young and the young at heart.
Over breakfast at the Brunchery, I talked to Bagley about her humble roots, her love of technology and about being a mother of five (ages 2 to 12).
Pull up a chair and join us.
Tell me about going from being a self-described "at-risk kid" to a successful businesswoman.
I'm a Head Start kid, 4 years old. The cool thing is that we had all of these great engineers in the community, professors in the community. We had organizations like NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers. They started working with us and on Saturdays, we would meet up at the library to work on computers and learn logarithms. I found it interesting because of those mentors.
Where did you grow up?
Beaumont, Texas. I lived in a neighborhood called Hollywood Village. It was a rough neighborhood. It was the neighborhood where, when it was time for our bus route to be combined with another bus route, the parents were complaining: "We don't want our kids on the bus with those kids." The funny thing about it is that it was African-American parents complaining about not wanting their kids with us.
So logarithms are fun?
That's what everybody says. Why would anybody choose to do science in the summer? Because science is cool; we make it cool.
Okay, if you say so
You're still doubtful?
Well, I'm in the newspaper business because I wasn't very good at math and science. You have to know that.
It's not that you can't do it. It's about whether we can find someone to show you how to do it. I can show you how to do it and make it relative to you, because you have to be excited about it before you're going to want to try it. We put it in the format of video games and you have to keep score. For our second- and third-graders, we put the score in the form of an algebraic expression. Before you know it, we're introducing them to equations and giving it to them in a way that's interesting and exciting and they're eating it up.
What convinced you to start Tech PlayZone three years ago?
My children were coming home telling me that science wasn't cool and they just weren't fitting in at school. When we got ready to start, I was trying to find something where they would feel comfortable in their own skin and they could be surrounded by other kids. Now they see that other kids like math and science, and that they like computers and technology. They're meshing and developing relationships.
And you're able to convince kids to give up beach time and pool time for technology, math and science?
The kids don't need convincing. When the kids walk through the door, they see the computers, Legos, video games and the green screen for making a movie. It's called chroma keying and you choose the background. You tell a 7-year-old boy Star Wars and they say, 'I've got a light saber at home and I'm bringing it.' Okay, we're going to make a Star Wars movie and somehow we're going to intertwine fiber optics, how computers communicate, and we're going to talk about how to convert from decimals to binary numbers and boom — we've got a summer camp.
You're also a motivational speaker for Monster.com, and you speak to a lot of aspiring high school and college kids. What kind of message do you try to deliver?
I'm trying to deliver the message of not doing what you think society wants you to do. I want you to do what you want to do. Growing up in this whole engineering environment, I thought I needed to be the female African-American engineer and go make a mark. It didn't work out. I didn't like electrical engineering. I like computer science and that worked for me.
What kind of pressure do kids face today?
The kids who are doing excellent in school, they're at the top of their class, they're feeling pressure from their peers. It's getting tougher to get into the Florida schools. They're feeling like if they don't get into the University of Florida or Florida State that they're not successful. The kids in the middle of the class are saying, "Oh, well, I guess I've got to go to Hillsborough Community College. They're not seeing it as an opportunity to take hold of their dream and make something of it.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Bagley also advocates for putting more technology in classrooms and hopes to serve on a new state education committee devoted to the topic. Tech PlayZone has been nominated for the Brandon Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year award. Bagley credits her success to her faith and her family, including husband Daryl Bagley. She attends Bay Area Church of Christ in Mango.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.