Brandon Okpalobi levels the playing field with STEM

Brandon Okpalobi has always pushed his limits. That drive pushed him from basketball walk-on to team captain at the University of Miami two decades ago, and also made him a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education innovator in Miami-Dade.

The 41-year-old inspires thousands of students every year. To date, his programs have educated and mentored an estimated 40,000 children. They’ve also provided leadership activities and scholarships for college-bound STEM majors.

Okpalobi knows the impact that mentorship can have on young lives. Three decades ago, a teacher sat down a young Brandon, who was headed down a bad path, and inspired him to take responsibility for himself.

“I was kicked out of second grade, I was almost kicked out of third grade, almost kicked out of fourth grade, and if Ms. Foley hadn’t sat me down in fifth grade and got through to me, who knows?” said Okpalobi. “I still had to make a choice, a choice to listen to her.”

In 2013, Okpalobi founded DIBIA Dream, a nonprofit organization that aims to engage students through STEM and recreational education. He began by hosting sessions on Saturdays that offered hands-on science experience.

“We can turn any space into what we call an incubator of excellence,” he said. “We have stations set up with a STEM professional and they teach the kids to build rockets, mechanical arms or solar rovers, and they’ll be able to take them home.”

Okpalobi believes STEM education is transformational because it represents an opportunity for underserved communities to achieve higher education and higher standards of living.

“STEM fields are the gateway to continued economic competitiveness for historically underrepresented populations,” he said.

While the results of the initial “STEM Saturdays,” as they are now called, were promising, Okpalobi realized he could make a more significant impact if he expanded.

“I thought, if you’re only reaching kids once a month, and that’s if they come, how transformational is that?” he said.

So DIBIA Dream began its Dream Academy in 2014. The first site was in Overtown, which hosted after-school programs from 3-6 p.m.; the academy has now expanded to six other parts of Miami-Dade, with programming focused on five pillars: STEM education, financial literacy, health and wellness, mentorship and sports.

“The kids get a meal, because a lot of kids we serve get their meals from school,” said Okpalobi. “They get tutoring, we make sure their homework is done, then we work on one of the five pillars.”

In addition to Dream Academy, DIBIA Dream also operates a summer program called SPARK Summer Institute and offers between five to seven scholarships to college-bound students a year. Dream Explorers sends kids abroad for leadership experiences.

“We have some kids who are seniors who had never flown in a plane before,” said Okpalobi. “So their first-ever flight was to London, their second flight was to Namibia and their third flight was to South Africa.”

Exposing children to these educational experiences is crucial, Okpalobi says, because it can level the playing field for underprivileged kids who face challenges in education due to circumstance rather than lack of ability.

“There are private schools who have built million-dollar STEM buildings, then there is a public school that may have one science room,” said Okpalobi, “It’s about access, opportunity and exposure. Funding and adequate staff are the two biggest issues.”

That’s where DIBIA Dream really can make an impact, and where Okpalobi’s passion for science education can create a snowball effect and change the future.

“We started with the mindset of, ‘We want to help kids through STEM.’ We didn’t think about how in a few years we’d be creating STEM professionals or anything like that,” Okpalobi said. “But now I see a kid wearing a lab coat saying, ‘I love medical sciences, I want to be a doctor,’ and it’s really transformative.”