March 18, 2024

Meet Tobius Nance, a senior at the University of Maryland studying information sciences who was a GEMS Near Peer Mentor (NPM) and is now a Student Ambassador at the ARL-Adelphi site in Maryland. We had the opportunity to sit down with him to learn about his passion for STEM and his commitment to giving back to his community. 

When did you first get involved with AEOP? What made you decide to participate in AEOP? 

I have been interested in STEM since middle school, ranging from robotics to mechanical engineering. I’m from Baltimore City, and I was able to participate in a number of STEM programs that introduced me to engineering and problem solving across STEM fields. When I was in high school, a member of my community introduced me to a partnership project with Northrop Grumman. I spent two years working with their engineers, creating a 3D printed handheld drone, working with ultrasonic sensors on a robot, taking an engineering class at Johns Hopkins University, and even earning a college scholarship. 

Through my work at Northrop Grumman, I was connected with the Bmore STEM Ecosystem in Baltimore, Maryland, and asked to serve on their Student Advisory Council. It was through my work with Bmore STEM that I met a mentor who gave me the opportunity to advance my experiences by sharing my information with Dr. Debbie Black-Conn, who leads the ARL-Adelphi, Maryland GEMS site. During the summer of my sophomore year of college, I became a Near Peer Mentor. This year, I’m working year-round as a Student Ambassador and still lending my experience to the GEMS program in the summer.

What has your GEMS experience been like?

During the summer, I’m involved in a lot of mentorship and working directly with students. Throughout the year, we prepare for the summer program, updating GEMS content, making sure the technology is up to date, and preparing lab materials. For the youngest students who are in GEMS I, we teach them interactive, hands-on lessons. They explore new STEM topics each day and get a tour of the lab. GEMS II, generally for middle school students, is more engineering focused, and students work on computer-aided design and coding. The oldest students are in GEMS III, where they learn computer science, python basics, the history of computing, and how to implement what they have learned within the Spyder integrated development environment.

Can you share a favorite moment or experience from your time in GEMS that has stood out to you?

I have enjoyed connecting with other NPMs over the past few summers. However, my favorite memory was during my first summer as a NPM. COVID-19 restrictions were still in play and GEMS would be virtual. As a group we were tasked with sending out kits with all the lab materials the students would need. While it seemed daunting we created an assembly line system and got all of the kits sent out on time. This experience showed me the adaptability of the GEMS program at the Adelphi Laboratory Center and how innovative solutions contributed to the program’s ability to run smoothly.  

I also really appreciate working with the younger students – getting to see the “lightbulb moments” when they understand something and it all clicks; that is my favorite part. When I was younger, I didn’t get access to quality STEM programs until late middle school. So it is rewarding to see young students enjoy STEM and actually doing the work. It is also wonderful that they have the exposure so early to really hone in on what it is they enjoy about pursuing an education in STEM. 

How has GEMS impacted you, professionally or personally? 

I was always confident going into college that I would get a job in STEM, but I wasn’t sure what my passion was. GEMS helped me figure out what I am interested in – my passion is educational development as it relates to STEM.

Also, I highly value seeing students that look like myself get more of these unique experiences. I’m very grateful that I had some teachers and my mom in my ear helping me growing up, but not everyone has that. What about the students who no one notices? They deserve exciting and accessible STEM experiences too. It shouldn’t just be the most vocal or the top 5% of students who get these opportunities. I want to be the person who gets to share these kinds of experiences, because I recognize the path that brought me here. I worked hard to get where I am, but there were also individuals  advocating for me in spaces where I wasn’t present, and their assistance was invaluable. Not every student has that opportunity.

What advice or insights would you give to students or volunteers who are considering participating in AEOP? 

For students, it’s crucial to recognize the significance of the opportunities available to you. Some of the content covered in my college classes overlaps with what I’ve learned already in programs similar to GEMS. Embrace these opportunities as they can provide valuable insights and hands-on learning experiences that complement your academic journey and broaden your skill sets overtime. 

For volunteers, dedicate yourself fully to the experience. The effort you invest correlates directly with the rewards you’ll reap. While you may not fully grasp the extent of your influence, you possess a tremendous opportunity to inspire and make a meaningful impact on students’ lives.

What goals do you have? What does your future look like?

I want to bring a STEM program like GEMS to Baltimore; I always strive to make things come  full circle. An invaluable lesson from my mother is the importance of replenishing what you’ve taken from a resource. My education in Baltimore provided me with much, and I am eager to give back. I can dedicate my time and efforts to best serve the needs of the community. I firmly believe in acknowledging one’s roots and extending a helping hand to uplift others along the journey..

I have recently taken on a new role at Baltimore Promise, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting the city’s youth and community members. Previously, I served as a grant maker, contributing to the allocation of half a million dollars toward programs benefiting Baltimore’s youth. In my new capacity, I will serve on the community advisory board.

Additionally, I recently testified in Annapolis, advocating for the implementation of a bill that would mandate computer science education in K-8 schools. Recognizing the importance of early exposure to these subjects, I am passionate about ensuring all students have access to them. It was great to testify alongside other individuals who are passionate about STEM and genuinely invested in nurturing the community here in Maryland, as well as ensuring that education in these fields is accessible to all students.

Lastly, I am eagerly anticipating my upcoming graduation! I look forward to embarking on the next chapter of my journey.

GEMS is a U.S. Army-sponsored, summer STEM enrichment program for elementary, middle and high school students that takes place in participating U.S. Army research laboratories and engineering centers. To learn more about AEOP’s GEMS, click here.

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