When she was 7 years old, all Shimira Williams wanted for Christmas was Legos.
Riding the middle of the pack in a working class Lincoln-Lemington family of eight children, Ms. Williams, now 35, knew the request couldn't possibly make her more of an outlier than she already was. When her sisters collaborated on Barbie makeovers and her rough 'n tumble brothers huddled for street football, she was usually off reading a book or reinforcing the structural stability of her latest Lego project.
So when her parents dismissed her holiday request -- "boys play with Legos" -- in favor of a set of twin Cabbage Patch Kid dolls, she did what came naturally.
"I buried one in the field up the street from us to see if it would mold, and I put the other one in the street to see if the 71D Hamilton [bus] would pop its head off and how far it would go," she quipped.
"Let's say that ended my mom buying me baby dolls."
Surrounded by boxes of dismantled electronics, 3-D puzzles and, yes, Legos, in the converted living room in Lincoln-Lemington that serves as home base for TekStart Day Care -- geared toward science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects -- Ms. Williams embraced the memory as a catalyst for creating a sanctuary for the next generation of urban techies.
"If you like STEM, it's OK here," she said.
"When you are an African-American kid who loves STEM, you're a weird geek to the rest of the African-American kids in your low-income neighborhood. You're weird to the [STEM-focused kids] you want to play with because they say, 'We don't see that many African-Americans around here,' and you're weird to the kids in your neighborhood because they say, 'You like to play with the things white kids play with.'
Originally founded in 2008 as satellite center for Lincoln-based Righteous Beginnings Learning Center -- a day care center owned by Ms. Williams' mother, Rhonda Owens -- TekStart has grown into a fully licensed child care provider that touts the fundamentals of science and technology learning to children ages 3 to 13.
Ms. Williams, who holds a bachelor's degree in business economics from Penn State University and worked as a database analyst prior to forming the technical consulting business, Productivity LLC, said she has always wanted to create a STEM-based program for young people.
But when she started teaching preschool classes at Righteous Beginnings on a temporary basis, she never expected to take it to the level where she would need help from an additional volunteer or consider the idea of upgrading her home to include a maximum of eight children into an operation of her own.
For the six children currently enrolled, the decision to make TekStart a full-time endeavor means breakfasts followed by exploration of a "dramatic play bucket" filled with keyboards and smartphones before school, followed by iPad interviews with experts in STEM fields for the day care's YouTube series' "Lunch and Learn" and "What's Cooking" after school.
It means a broken Nexus 7 tablet becomes a lesson on the inner workings of smart technologies. It means learning how the Internet works during field trips to Google and discussing traffic light sequences with PennDOT engineers.
For Ms. Williams, who put the day care under the umbrella of her home-based Productivity LLC, it means a constant juggle between the needs of enthusiastic students and paying clients.
During the school year, she helps clients such as economic development corporation Urban Innovation21 and Erie, Pa., business consultants McCrary Group tweak Web pages and increase social media reach during the early afternoon and evenings, while kids rule the day and late afternoon. During the summer, work is either done during field trips on laptops and smartphones or pushed back until students are sent home.
She said her Productivity business has grown to a point of profitability, but it just breaks even due to reinvestments into TekStart, which charges parents the state maximum of $20 per day.
"In the summertime, we're all day and my tech clients know that. They know for six weeks I'm available, but not as available," she said.
As far as Urban Innovation21 president William Generett is concerned, delays haven't had any effect on Ms. Williams' performance, considering his organization has seen its Facebook and LinkedIn followers jump with her aid. Beyond bettering his organization, Mr. Generett said, supporting Productivity means supporting a classroom strategy he hopes to see emulated far and wide.
"Ms. Williams really has a model that benefits all kids," he said. "You don't hear that much about STEM education for day care. It's increasingly important for [underrepresented] kids, but she has a model that everyone needs to look at."
Some of her lessons have already caught on with Saint Vincent College's Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media, said Michael Robb, director of education and research. He said the Latrobe center -- which advocates for early childhood tech and interactive media education -- will use a "Lunch and Learn" video filmed by a TekStart student on his MEEP Android kids tablet as an example on the center's website of how to introduce technology learning at the earliest stages.
"Teachers need more ideas that are not just putting a kid in front of a TV or showing them an app and hoping they learn. This is very intentional, and that's what we're driving for," Mr. Robb said.
For as draining as the sun up to way past sundown days have been, Ms. Williams said the work has more than paid off.
After putting $5,000 into equipment that includes three Android tablets, a desktop computer, a projector screen, a Nintendo Wii and endless supplies of earphones, TekStart has received $250 toward an iPad from the Pittsburgh Association for Educating Young Children, a $5,000 Recipes for Remarkable Learning grant from the Sprout Fund and will receive an Android tablet from the Fred Rogers Center in the coming weeks.
A reputation as an early childhood STEM advocate earned Ms. Williams an invitation from Aspinwall-based consulting firm BusinessForward to a White House Business Council briefing to discuss economic competitiveness for small businesses. The Feb. 10 meeting was canceled due to inclement weather and has yet to be rescheduled.
The greatest reward has been seeing youngsters who started with a fledgling interest in STEM shifting career plans from firemen to engineers.
Eleven-year-old TaSaun Harvey of Homewood, who has been with TekStart since first grade, has evolved from studying the broken TekStart Nexus to breaking apart and piecing together electronics in his own home. A love of cars fueled by annual TekStart trips to the Pittsburgh auto show pushed him to create an auto blog, and a trip to the University of Pittsburgh's Engineering Fair has given him a new dream of mechanical engineering.
"At the mechanical engineers table, the man said he was working in a car factory and that he had to go build jets!" said TaSaun.
Calling Ms. Williams "a blessing," TaSaun's mother, Passion Harvey, said she hopes more children in her neighborhood find their way to TekStart and to talents they never knew they had.
"I hope people interested in STEM reach out to her. You never know what's hidden in this neighborhood. There are so many hidden gems out here," she said.
As much as she wants to see more children like TaSaun come through her doors, Ms. Williams' greatest hope is that educators recognize the natural fit between science and tech and early education, and that similar doors open nationwide.
"Truly, STEM education should start in preschool. All preschoolers ever ask is why did that happen, what are you doing, what makes that happen, why, why, why. And they'll keep trying something over and over again; if they find an area that interests them, at that age they love it," she said.
"It's our job as educators, business owners and parents to create an environment that helps them capture the data ... as well as to have a conversation about what actually happened. Because that's truly the scientific method."
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652.