(IAP ’16) Jamila Smith-Dell, ’16

Jamila Smith-Dell (’16, Chemical Engineering)

Jamila will spend IAP in Hollywood, California, where she will be working with i.am.angel, a non-profit founded by musician will.i.am to transform underserved communities through STEM education programs. She will help implement STEM programs for K-12 students in underserved communities, especially the FIRST Robotics Competition for middle and high school students. In addition, she will also assist with planning the annual fundraising gala in order to foster strategic partnerships with high profile companies and organizations that support will.i.am’s STEM efforts. The goal of this project, ultimately, is to aid in increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in top schools, like MIT, by mentorship and leadership.

Check back for her updates!


Week 4: Summary

January 30, 2016

After spending a month in Hollywood, California, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about working in a non-profit environment. Although the work that needed to get done became available much slower than at a for profit organization, it was still meaningful work. Meeting the students really helped to influence the way that I think about education. Some of the schools that I worked were pretty unorganized. The students weren’t as motivated as I was when I was in school and it was pretty hard to get them to do stuff. But I noticed as soon as you gave them a picture of what the end goal was (i.e. functioning robot), they became motivated.

Working at i.am.angel challenged my creativity. I had the opportunity to learn photoshop and design the cover of the booklet for the gala on February 11th. I first started with a hand drawing and then perfected it by using some of the new brushes that I learned in photoshop. It was an amazing experience learning photoshop from one of the graphic designers at the studio. He stressed the importance of being a perfectionist when it comes to design. Once I had finished my design on photoshop, he zoomed in as far as the window would allow him and highlighted a few pixels that weren’t the proper shade of black that they should be. Although, for the booklet this wouldn’t have made much of a difference, I learned that in order to be successful in this industry you have to perfect your design on the frontend. What if someone wants to come in and reuse it later but in a larger printout? They aren’t going to contact you and ask you to make edits. You might be long gone by then. So yeah, basically I went back and made sure everything was perfect and he loved it and called me “Young Jedi”.

I plan to take the learnings from this internship back to MIT and apply them in other programs that aim to reach out to underrepresented minorities. I learned a lot about giving back to your community. Especially the communities that I worked in. There were so many students that looked like me and talked like me that just needed the encouragement to go the places that I have been so fortunate to go. Just showing up at the schools and meeting the students gave me the opportunity to share stories about the challenges that I faced growing up and what I did to overcome them.


Week 3: Reflecting on the Month

January 24, 2016

On January 18th, the middle schoolers that I was working with at The Studio School went to a high school about an hour away to compete in the FIRST Robotics competition FTC (FIRST Tech Challenge). Both of the robots were working well. The only thing that was uncertain was whether or not the Android phones that we downloaded the code onto were going to connect with each other. For each robot, there was one phone for the remote controller and one for the driver station. In a poor wifi zone, however, the phones had trouble connecting with each other. We were all scared that this might happen during the competition…

We arrive and there are about 25 total teams at the competition. Our team was easily the youngest team there being one of if not the only middle school teams. The first two matches go pretty poorly. Our robot was hit by debris (thrown to randomize the field) and the cord connecting the driver station phone shorted and disconnected the phones. The robot wouldn’t even move and we weren’t allowed to touch it after the start of the match. So for 2.5 minutes (duration of the match) we all just stood there. It was actually pretty disappointing because we knew that the robot worked! The same thing happened in the next match. Before the third match we reset all of the phones, disconnected all of the electrical connections, and charged all of the batteries. And, at the start of the competition the robot started moving! The middle schooler driving ended up pushing 22 pieces into the endzone and we won the match. It was incredible! Our next 3 matches were also comparably successful and we ended up 12th out of 20 teams at the end of the day. It was such a great learning experience. I hope that it taught the kids to never give up when things are going well but instead troubleshoot and problem solve!

Aside from robotics, one of the other impacts that I made this month was designing the TRANS4M booklet cover. I worked with one of the graphic designers at The Future (will.i.am’s studio) and he taught me a lot about Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I worked with him for a week and it was a great experience. Although he is one of the masterminds who designed all of will.i.ams album covers and booklets, he was so humble and a great person to work with. He made it a thing to call me “young jedi” which was funny. At the end of the week I showed him the final product and he gave me a high five and said I had done a great job.

I believe during this internship I had a great impact on the students that I worked with and the i.am.angel foundation. I helped complete some of the office items for the foundation which took a load off of the other employees at the foundation. A part of the long term impact would include having a very successful TRANS4M gala and raising a lot of money. This will allow the foundation to impact more students. For example, one of the programs is called College Track which aims to increase the high school graduation rate in Boyle Heights and help them apply to college. I learned that there is a cap on the number of students that can be impacted by this program by nature of the fact that the funding is finite. But funding from outside donors will have a great influence on the students which is why TRANS4M is so important. I’m very excited to attend in February and speak to donors first hand!



Photo: Lenovo Thinkbots FTC Team after the competition.


Week 2: The Break In 

January 17, 2016

Basically week 2 involved our Airbnb getting broken into at 3:30 in the morning, scrambling together to complete the robot before competing in the FIRST robotics competition, and getting a parking ticket. The first happened on a Wednesday while I was sleeping. Because our Airbnb is so compact and there aren’t enough beds for all four of us, I have been sleeping on the couch in the living room. That night, we all went to bed pretty early, maybe around 11pm…So I was pretty much passed out at 3:30 in the morning. But I heard knocking and the doorbell ringing and I woke up pretty dazed. After a while, whoever was trying to get it, eventually inputted a few numbers into the keypad and slowly opened the door. Now the story kind of ends here because all they did was close the door slowly after they made eye contact with me. And then they left. No burglary, nothing. Which is good! But I was so scared that I couldn’t sleep and kind of just walked around the apartment for a while. I called the landlord, Marcy, and told her what had happened to see if there was any way that someone could have known our door code and she explained to me that they reset all of the codes after every resident. Eventually I fell asleep. Long story short, the landlord installed a second, more heavy duty lock, on our front door so that no one can enter at night even if they try. She got one for her apartment as well!

Second story, I’ve been working with the middle school students to prepare for the first robotics competition. This past week I learned to code in Java because time was running out and we needed to code the robot to move. I worked late one night to learn the language and troubleshoot some of the code. It took a while to learn but the next day we downloaded it onto the robot and it started moving! The thing though was that only one of wheels would move. So the robot was only moving in circles. We messed around with it for a while and looked at our code to debug it. But everything we tried either led to the robot not moving or no changes at all. It was definitely getting frustrating for all of us but with the competition nearing we had to keep troubleshooting. Eventually, I take a closer look at the code and see that there isn’t a command to initiate the right wheel at “Start of Game”. That way, although we had controls for the wheel, it hadn’t been called upon at the beginning of the code. After the ah-ha moment, I edited the one line of code and then the robot started moving!! I’m looking forward to the competition on Monday!


Photo: i.am.angel externs and high school student volunteers. 

Third story, we got a parking ticket. Near the studio that we work at there is street cleaning on Tuesdays. The thing is, there are parking spots that have multiple signs and sometimes the warnings seem to be contradicting each other, making it very confusing. We parked in a spot near work that we usually park in. But when we returned to our car to go out for lunch at 12:15, we found a ticket in the dashboard. It was a parking ticket for $73… But among the 4 of us it wasn’t too too expensive. Needless to say, we learned our lesson and now spend extra time in the morning before work reading all of the parking signs. No more parking tickets for us!


Week 1: Jam.i.am 

January 10, 2016

Alright, so as a veteran storyteller (debuted, peaked, and retired in second grade, at the age of 7), I am going to try my best to describe my experiences in Los Angeles in the most captivating way possible.

First, to introduce myself, my name is Jamila and I am a senior studying chemical engineering at MIT. During the free time that I have, I compete on the women’s varsity sailing team (go angry beavers!), work on visual art projects (paintings, sketches, etc.), and participate in various performance groups (current one that I am in is RAMBAX, MIT’s Senegalese drumming group). Considering that you made it all the way to this blog series, you’re probably interested in finding out what it is that I will be working on during IAP. Or maybe you were trying to search for the latest iPAD version and somehow tripped on the keyboard and spelled it incorrectly. Anyways, you’ve made it!

This January I will be working in Los Angeles, California at the i.am.angel Foundation. The i.am.angel Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to enable underrepresented minorities to pursue studies in science and engineering. Started by singer, songwriter will.i.am, it provides students with the resources and mentors they need to be successful the STEM field. In addition to this, the foundation sponsors and supports several FIRST robotics teams in East LA as they prepare and compete in one of the nations largest robotics competitions.

One of the biggest success measures for this project is the FIRST robotics competition. I will be working with the middle school students in the program as they complete their robot in preparation for the competition on January 18th. For the high school students, the competition challenge is assigned January 9th and they have only six-seven weeks from then to design and build their robot. I plan on helping with the brainstorming and project management portion of their project as well as dabbling in coding if need be (whoa).

Another success criteria for this project will be fostering relationships with partners of the organization. i.am.angel works closely with many high profile companies such as NASA, Lockheed Martin, JP Morgan Chase, the Local Mayor’s Office, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, etc. I will be working with these partners in planning the TRANS4M Benefit Gala, the big fundraising event for i.am.angel. By showcasing the foundation’s work to the donors, I seek to help raise money to advance the program. Because of finances in a non-profit are finite, there is a max capacity for the number of students that can be impacted. The funding raised by this gala, however, will enable i.am.angel have a continual positive impact in the lives of more students.

I am so excited to be a part of this program. I am even more excited to meet the students and make lasting connections with them. I remember how it felt to think that I was the only smart one in my class that looked like me. I want to show the students that they shouldn’t use that as a crutch but a stepping stool to empower later generations to be like them. I’m also really excited to teach, whether it is robotics, engineering, or programming. I’ve learned a lot over my years here at MIT about problem solving and want to show the kids what they can accomplish if they work hard and don’t give up when they face challenges. Because overcoming obstacles is the only way to learn. And one of the beauties of learning is that it never stops!

Tune in to my next post if you want to hear about how our Airbnb was broken into in the middle of the night, how we got a parking ticket within minutes of the time allotted (tears.), how we did at the FIRST Robotics competition, and how we have started planning the TRANS4M gala.




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