By Michael Morella Jun 20, 2014
The Black Eyed Peas frontman says STEM education will get America’s schools back on track.
Will.i.am likes robots as much as he likes rapping – maybe even more so. The Grammy Award-winning musician and Black Eyed Peas frontman has supported inventor Dean Kamen’s FIRST Robotics Competitions, inspired underserved students with technology through his i.am.angel Foundation and even had his song “Reach for the Stars” beamed back from Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012. Now he’s trying his hand at 3-D printing with the EKOCYCLE Cube, a device developed along with Coca-Cola and 3D Systems that has cartridges that work in part from recycled plastic. U.S. News spoke with will.i.am while he was in Washington for this week’s White House Maker Faire. Excerpts:
What sparked your interest in STEM?
One [thing] was a  movie by the name of “Waiting for ‘Superman’” that talks about the education system in America and how poorly it performs. In particular, my neighborhood [in Los Angeles] that I come from was featured in that movie. Superman, a fictitious character, is supposed to solve real problems. STEM, to me, is the solution for schools and neighborhoods like mine.
How have you worked to improve STEM education?
To help solve the problems and the riddles that plague my community and the communities like it … we created this cross-disciplinary, transformative, project-based-learning curriculum that kids do after school. Our kids had a 0.74 GPA – just failing beyond failing – and now they have 3.4s, 4.0s. Four of them are about to go to MIT for a summer program. But they can’t do those things until their grades change. We give them incentives. If you’re living in the hood and you’re surviving, what incentive do you give kids? We say, “Let’s get on track to go to college, learn the skill set, so not only are you looking for a job when you get out of college, you can create jobs.” There are millions of jobs in America around computer science and advanced mathematics that we can’t fill because the skill set’s not in America. STEM solves a lot of problems.
Do you have any other thoughts about changing the culture around STEM?
STEM is a hot topic. When I was going to elementary school, we had science in our school. I went to Brentwood Science Magnet. We had science class, oceanography lab, physics and computer labs. And then somewhere in the ’90s, they started cutting budgets. They took music out of schools; they took science out of schools. What built America was STEM. It was companies like Ford – that’s engineering. It was H-1B visas – we were able to bring people from other countries. What built America was NASA. Thank God that it’s a subject making its way to popular culture because for some reason popular culture forgot the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
How can parents help?
At the Maker Faire, there was this beautiful robot. Who built this? Two little girls. [I asked,] “How old are you?” “I’m 14.” “I’m 12. I’m her little sister.” I’m like, “So who designed it?” Here walks the dad: “I helped them design it. … Every weekend me and my girls go in the garage and we start building robots.” Wow. If it was a dad and a son, that sounds pretty obvious. But two girls and a pop? So that is an amazing story to see parents and kids – especially girls – building robots. They’re going to take that skill set with them to high school, and then, when they graduate high school, they’re probably going to go to MIT or Stanford. Then they’re going to get a job at Lockheed Martin or Boeing or the Department of Defense. Amazing things.