The Pew Research Center reported in January 2018 that, while there’s widespread support of racial and ethnic diversity in science, technology, engineering and math jobs, lack of diversity and representation in STEM fields is a problem as we approach a new decade. There are underlying reasons rooted in educational opportunities—or in this case, lack of access. However, a third of people working in STEM areas point to underrepresentation and lack of role models, leading to black and Hispanic Americans not believing their abilities to pursue these fields.
Local author Travis Corpening set out to combat the issue with his 2018 children’s book “The Adventures of Lucas and Alyci.” Corpening is director of the Nixon Minority Male Leaders Program at Cape Fear Community College. He also has his master’s degree in liberal studies from UNCW (2006), during which he researched the impact of exposing young kids to characters in storybooks who look like them.
“STEM can open kids’ minds to the fact their ideas always spark something better,” Corpening says. “There’s no leash on a kid’s ability to solve problems outside of the one we give them. In my day-to-day work in education, I hear so many first-time college students tell me how horrible they are in math and how they want to wait to take it. Teaching them early to be inquisitive . . . builds their confidence in their ability to try and figure problems, [which] helps them throughout life.”
In his first of a series, Corpening writes about a little boy, Lucas (named after his own son, who inspired the story), whose engineer father comes home with a robot named Alyci. The two set out on science-based adventures. Lucas draws on the robot’s screen and creates a different world, which also represents the digital age students are focused on today.
“I love how so many classrooms have tablets and how we are in a generation where we are teaching kids to work smarter, and use technology,” Corpening notes. “I also, however, think there is something to be said for balance and not allowing technology to make us lazy, or emotionally disconnected from the real world.”
Kids can connect with Corpening and “The Adventures of Lucas and Alyci” at Cape Fear Museum’s Active Story Time session on Friday, December 20 at 2 p.m. Corpening will read as kids participate in STEM-driven activities and learn about careers in science. Corpening talked to encore about his series.
encore (e): This was inspired by your own son—what does he think about the book?
Travis Corpening (TC): He really likes it—I think! [laughs] The big thing for him now is what’s going to happen next and how can he contribute his ideas to any of the new books. It’s cool how kids see things in different ways sometimes and find different ways to solve problems. He always has a cool idea he wants to add and many times they are pretty good!
e: You set out to create a story where he could see himself (or someone like himself) in a lead role. How important is representation for young minds?
TC: I think it’s huge! Even though when I was a kid, I remember loving “Star Wars,” “He-Man,” and comic-book characters, in the back of my mind, there was always a thought (although subtle) that a “cool” black character would have added something for me. Although racial representation isn’t the only aspect that draws you to a character—and media should not shape how a child feels about themselves—I think new stories like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” could make a black boy feel legitimized and important.
Imagine being a black kid who loves talking about “Star Wars” with your friends but none of the characters look like you. If the kid doesn’t have a sense of self, it’s possible they could feel like they are always on the outside looking in, just wanting to be included. My ultimate goal is to do whatever I can . . . to grow their sense of self-importance.
e: What else influences you as a writer?
TC: Honestly, almost everything. I never really considered myself a writer; however, I have loved taking people to other places with words. My goal is always to paint a picture that makes people feel or think in a new way, particularly about themselves or the world.
e: Did you have interest in science as a kid?
TC: Very much so. I was really blessed. My dad was a biologist for a local power company so he would buy me things like dissection kits and microscopes. I was an absolute nerd but didn’t know it because I still did all of the jock stuff, too. I believe this allowed me to see and be exposed to STEM careers, and understand it could be normal for someone like me to be a scientist or be innovative. Although I didn’t go into a STEM career, I knew it was possible. It is one of the reasons I felt pulled to create my nonprofit, Young Mogul Development Group. I wanted other teenage men to be exposed to careers outside of professional sports or music. That way they could have options.
e: Tell us more about your childhood inspirations, role models and/or impactful experiences you want more children to have?
TC: As corny as it may sound to some people, my inspirations are Jesus Christ and my parents. The work ethic I learned through playing sports also helped. My sister and I grew up having parents who were firm but applauded us when we did well academically—and drove us to believe we were great and powerful. They never allowed us to believe we weren’t as good as anyone else. I would love to spread that message to other kids. So many children watch YouTube or see certain videos and believe success just happens, and work has nothing to do with it. I grew up reading about how greats like Michael Jordan failed, but used failure to drive them to work and be better.
e: What can folks expect at your event?
TC: I will be reading from “The Adventures of Lucas and Alyci,” but I will have my stuffed robot, Alyci, for the kids. I also will hand out “Screen Sheets” and other treats for kids to create their own ideas. It’s really about inspiring the next minds!
e: What’s the number-one question kids or parents ask you about your book?
TC: That’s an interesting question. I would say either how they can connect with the next stories or learn about the next characters. Some even ask how can they create their own stories. I always say, “Your stories are just an idea away.”
e: Do you have another book coming?
TC: Absolutely! I am working on three now. Two are children’s books; the other is built to inspire people to know who they are and overcome personal barriers. I have more books in my head, children’s and otherwise, than I feel I even have time to start.