Nicholas Haystings, co-founder of Square Roots Academy
Sacramento nonprofit reaches into underserved communities to get kids into STEM
Nicholas Haystings, 27, wanted to be one of two things growing up: a Power Ranger or an engineer. Unfortunately, the former is just a character from a ’90s TV show now being used to tug at millennial heartstrings in attempts to make a new movie franchise. Fast forward a decade: Haystings and two of his engineering colleagues—Christina Carter-Brown and DJ Mponte—are getting kids into science, technology, engineering and math through their nonprofit Square Root Academy.
How’d this all come together?
Me and DJ met at NSBE, when we were both a part of the National Society of Black Engineers. Me and Christina, we met when we were volunteering at a Code for Hood event when I was an intern for Hacker Lab at that time. We just hit it off. [We were] both like-minded and wanted to give back to our community. Pretty nerdy and techy at the same time, and we just made this thing happen.
So where did the name come from? I mean, save from the obvious ‘It’s a mathematical sign’ answer.
(Laughs.) So Square Root was something else originally. It was this automated, indoor hydroponics thing that me and a few other engineers made. So the name was kind of cool, and we just stuck with it and created Square Root Academy.
Why change it to a STEM nonprofit?
It’s not a diverse field.
I think the statistic is about 20 percent women, 7 percent Latin Americans and 6 percent African-Americans in STEM. For us to be as diverse as we are, particularly here in Sacramento, any educator in the realm of STEM should be embarrassed by those numbers. We have a moral responsibility to fix this, because it’s obviously a problem. Diversity drives innovation. If there is no diversity, there almost cannot be any innovation.
So how do you fix it?
We empower and expose these kids to pursue a future in the STEM realm. We make it appealing to them. We make the concepts relatable to what they would actually do in [the] industry, not just talk at them and tell them the theories. … Sometimes it’s just as little as being present. From talking to my students, they don’t have many teachers that look like me. I’m a 27-year-old black man with dreadlocks that just so happens to have a degree in engineering and have some industry experience and know what I’m talking about with this stuff. Not a whole lot of that running around.
How do you get kids, and even parents, to get active?
It’s kind of like that cliché thing, “If you build it, they will come.” That’s literally what happened. We had this great program and we wanted to make sure that we ensured accessibility. So we would go out into the communities that we served and do it at no cost. We’d remove as many barriers as we possibly could. Outside of that, we’re reflective of the demographic we’re serving. We look like them. Why? Because we were them. We are them. The first sites that we served were in Meadowview. I grew up right across the street from the Meadowview Park. Like, I lived right there. I know these people. That’s something that not a lot of people can speak to, and I think it makes a huge difference in actually getting them to believe that you’re there for them.
You mentioned barriers…
Yes, I want to be clear: At no point do we charge our students or their families. We don’t do that because, like I said, we want to ensure accessibility, and we’re not going to say, “Hey, this is for people that can’t afford stuff,” and then slap a $300 price tag on it. It makes no sense. It’s contradictory, so we just don’t do that.
You’re in South Sacramento now. Where’s next?
We want to break more into the Oak Park community. We feel like that’s a demographic in a place that could really benefit from what we’re doing. I’m also thinking about Twin Rivers Unified School District as well. The Del Paso Heights area—I think those kids could really use something to rally behind and I think this could possibly be one of those things.
Oak Park is where your event is, right?
Yes, 5000 Watts. That’s taking place in Oak Park. It’s very tech-infused, but it’s getting the community involved in a way where they’re comfortable with the technology they’re seeing because it’s an art-tech showcase. We’re partnering with the Brick House—lots of collaborators on this. We’re being very strategic about our growth because we want to make sure that it’s executed to a certain level of excellence.