As the Founder and CEO of The Neurodiversity Education Research Center (NERC), Ken works to improve access to quality education and workforce development for Neurodivergent people every day. The NERC is an independent nonprofit research center that delivers programs, technology, teaching and learning designs, and other innovative methods to help inform public policy to deliver on their promise of providing access to quality education for all. This promise has also led to Ken and the NERC to start their flagship STEM private school in Phoenix, AZ called Science Prep Academy. Science Prep Academy serves students from diverse backgrounds and means with a research-based education model that was designed to support Neurodivergent students who are specifically transitioning into college and careers.
Ken has firsthand experience starting a FIRST® LEGO® League team for autistic students, and was committed to weaving FIRST® into the curriculum at Science Prep Academy. This approach helps students get real-world knowledge and experience along with learning FIRST® Core Values that help them become confident problem solvers and critical thinkers.
Read more about Ken and what inspires him below.
FIRST Staff: What is your favorite part of your current role?
Ken: My favorite part as a CEO is the opportunity to have a systemic impact on the lives of children and society. As an innovator and entrepreneur, I genuinely enjoy identifying market needs and developing solutions through innovative and disruptive business ventures.
FIRST Staff: What is the hardest part of your job?
Ken: Patience is the hardest part of my job. Great things do not happen overnight. To succeed, starting and leading an organization takes strategic planning, capacity building, and quality leadership and governance. Managing difficult circumstances requires perseverance in the face of delays. Innovative solutions to challenges take time and the patience to effectively put research into practice.
FIRST Staff: How do you use STEAM skills in your everyday work/life?
Ken: My educational background was in applied physics, so I still think like a scientist. I intuitively use my STEAM skills and mindset to solve complex daily problems by breaking them into smaller, more manageable parts. I naturally depend on my logical reasoning, deduction, and experimentation skills to solve problems daily.
FIRST Staff: Can you share your thoughts on the impact of your personal/professional work in STEAM?
Ken: In 2016, I created a FIRST LEGO League team for Autistic students in partnership with the Autism Society of Metro Phoenix. While parents attended monthly workshops, I would hold a robotics club to teach their children how to build and program a LEGO® Mindstorm robot. This robotics program gave me insight and guidance on effective teaching strategies and behavioral supports needed to achieve my vision of establishing Science Prep Academy. This middle and high school aims to prepare Autistic students to transition into a STEAM career. In 2020, after our fifth year of operation, our board of directors decided to pivot into an education research center, Neurodiversity Education Research Center (NERC).
FIRST Staff: Who is a “Person of STEAM" who inspires you?
Ken: Dr. Sylvester James Gates, Jr. is a world-renowned theoretical physicist who serves as Distinguished University Professor and Center for String & Particle Theory Director at the University of Maryland. His research areas are the mathematical and theoretical physics of supersymmetric particles, fields, and strings. I met Dr. Gates during my undergraduate studies at a National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) conference at Berkeley University. I was amazed at his love and passion for teaching STEAM.
FIRST Staff: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Ken: Don't worry; all of your dreams will come true.
FIRST Staff: Do you have a message you want to share for students who are participating in FIRST today?
Ken: You live at the beginning of the 4th industrial revolution, a New Age of Technology driven by emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain, cloud computing, and robotics. I challenge all students participating in FIRST to solve the biggest human challenges, transform institutions, and positively impact people's lives through innovation and scientific discovery.
Are you a person of STEAM? Share your story with #PeopleofSTEAM on social media or send us your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.