Building Up STEAM to Fix the World
Kansas City, May 14, 2020: Atra-Niese Jones is ready to figure out how the world works.
A senior at East High School and a second-year scholar in the Project Lead the Way engineering program at Manual Career and Technical Center, Atra-Niese has seen her plans for celebrating graduation as part of the Class of 2020 get swept aside by the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s strong, though, and smart and resilient. She knows from her own experience and effort that sometimes when things break, that’s the best opportunity to learn how it works and how to make it better.
“I’ve had to adapt to a lot in my life,” Atra-Niese said. “I was raised to look for ways to make things better, to fix things. That’s my outlook on life. I really do believe that everything can be fixed: relationships, schools, communities, even the planet.”
That fierce determination to find a way to mend the broken is very personal for Atra-Niese. She was born with severe health problems and doctors warned that she wouldn’t live long. Her name is a combination of her aunt and grandmother’s first names, because those were the two strongest people in her mom’s life at that time.
Atra-Niese’s parents and family didn’t give up on her, and she mended and grew up into an intelligent and inquisitive child. Her mom would be alarmed to find her sitting in the living room and disassembling a television set in order to figure out how it worked.
“I’ve always wanted to figure out how things work, especially with electronics,” she said. “I would take things apart all the time. My mom would be nervous because I would try to take apart old TVs and stuff and she thought I would get electrocuted.”
That active curiosity developed into a dream of becoming and inventor and engineer. Though her dad didn’t go to college, he did pass on to Atra-Niese a natural proclivity towards mathematics and calculations that further fed her interest in science, technology, engineering and math.
“I’ve always loved to draw and design things. I love robotics and building. I wanted to prove that I can do this, too, as well or better than the boys. I wanted to be an inventor as a kid and that pushed me into engineering,” she said. “My love for math grew from my dad. He knew math inside and out. He could go into stores and calculate everything and I was amazed by that.”
Life didn’t always work well for Atra-Niese. She’s open about the family challenges that led to her being separated for a time from her parents and living with her aunt. Her father’s death was another devastating blow.
But even those tough times are a source of strength. She describes being supported by her family and realizing the advantage of being able to join her cousins and siblings at East High School.
“That was a whole new environment to adapt to. There was a lot of sadness and I had to learn how to deal with that, how to get along and mesh well and share,” she said. “I really had to come out of my shell, and when I started going to East, I had all this support from my family that I didn’t always have before.”
Atra-Niese entered a renaissance when she joined EHS. She was enthralled by the school’s educational farm and the unique opportunity to study agriculture and earth sciences. She joined the Green Guard, East High School’s environmental club.
“I started to really become aware of our relationship as humans to our environment,” she said. “That’s become really important to me. Let’s be stewards of the earth.
Atra-Niese’s interest in STEM has been rounded out by a growing passion for art and design. She’s taking advantage of the art classes at EHS and has even started sculpting.
“I love the expressiveness of art. There are no limits. Everybody can find something to relate to through art,” she said. “It takes a lot of skill and patience and motivation. I just love how artists can express themselves in a different way. It’s so vast. I like to see the finished piece and be able to say, ‘I did that!’”
Atra-Niese was further propelled towards a STEM career after entering the Project Lead the Way engineering program at Manual Career Tech. She’s blossomed with cutting-edge tools and instructors who are experts in their fields, according to EHS Vice Principal Bryan Vanosdale. Her outstanding work at EHS and Manual Career Tech helped Atra-Niese garner coveted internships with Kansas City Power & Light and the Kansas City engineering firm Burns & McDonnell.
“Atra-Niese is an incredible scholar and a student-leader,” Mr. Vanosdale said. “She’s a great example of what happens when you create a school where students have access to a wide range of educational experiences and you surround them with incredible teachers and support staff. That’s our whole philosophy at East High School.”
EHS is a place where students are given the soil and nutrients they need to thrive, according to Atra-Niese.
“I’m ahead of the curve and East is the reason,” she said. “The teachers there, they are so awesome. I will never forget them. ‘Mr. H’ (Principal Luis Hinojosa), the vice principals, the secretaries, the security guards, the custodians – everyone is so helpful and supportive. I always felt like every adult in that school was there for me.”
Life continues to mend for Atra-Niese Jones. She lives with her mom again and is preparing to study engineering at Tennessee Tech University, a connection she made thanks to Mr. Vanosdale. As she reflects on the past and considers the future, Atra-Niese sees every reason for hope.
“Sometimes you think that things won’t get better, but that’s when you need to adapt and start mending things,” she said. “I realize now that everyone makes mistakes and things do fall apart, but we have the ability to fix them and to actually make things better.”