Beyond the Ring: Purdue University and Downtown Boxing Gym Secure NSF Grant for STEM Research

The Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG) is gaining recognition for its innovative approach that leverages the sport of boxing to advance equal educational opportunities for Detroit’s youth. A significant milestone has been reached with the approval of a groundbreaking $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Purdue University’s College of Education and DBG. Over the course of a five-year research study, the aim is to further explore, quantify, and amplify the profound influence of DBG’s pioneering STEM-based programming.

Founded in 2007 by Khali Sweeney, DBG is dedicated to serving more than 200 boys and girls, ages 8-18, annually. The program is a game-changer, breaking down barriers by offering academic and athletic intervention, mentorship, transportation, meals, diverse programming, and more, Monday through Friday, all year round.

DBG’s remarkable achievement lies in its exceptional ability to not only retain students throughout their school years but also support them beyond, boasting a remarkable 100% high school graduation rate among all participating students for 16 consecutive years. Through years of unwavering dedication, personal sacrifice, and, most significantly, the transformation of young lives, DBG stands out as a beacon of success and the importance of community.

Sweeney’s unwavering belief in the potential of every child served as the driving force that led to the establishment of DBG. His epiphany came when he observed high school students reading at a 2nd or 3rd-grade level, a situation he referred to as these children being pushed forward without receiving the crucial assistance they needed for their future. Sweeney intimately understands this dynamic, having personally experienced being passed along and completing his entire high school education without the ability to read or write. Recognizing the trajectory of his own life in the absence of intervention, he felt compelled to take action to reach out to children who were overlooked and underserved in his community.

“When I saw children that were exhibiting some of the same behaviors that I was exhibiting back when I was a child that no one caught on to, I would start testing them,” said Sweeney. “I’d ask them to read or write something and I found they couldn’t do it. I realized these were not bad kids they were frustrated and couldn’t tell anyone that they couldn’t read.”

The program started as an outlet and safe space promoted through boxing, but it has always been much more than that. Boxing, as Khali explains, was the icebreaker to a bigger conversation—a way to engage the kids and build relationships. Once they were in the door, DBG addressed their immediate needs, such as hunger and literacy. However, the DBG’s doors didn’t just draw in young participants; they also gained the attention of a bunch of enthusiastic staff members who helped push the DBG dream forward.

DBG’s Executive Director, Jessica Hauser, discovered DBG’s original location 13 years ago, initially thinking it was just a boxing gym. At that time, the organization was grappling with financial challenges and the threat of closure. Hauser vividly recalls sensing that something significant was unfolding within the facility and couldn’t bear to walk away without taking action. She decided to contribute in any way she could, utilizing her educational background and resources to ensure the dream persisted. Now, 13 years later, the organization’s relentless dedication has borne fruit, evident in a waiting list, an expanded facility, engaged participants, and valuable partnerships.

“The way the program is designed is to meet kids where they are,” says Hauser. “It’s an individualized design that encompasses support and exposure. We support children from all over the city and neighboring communities. There is a mix of children and socioeconomic levels. We find out what they need and find ways to provide it. From food to transportation and educational resources, our goal is to bridge gaps.”

DBG’s mission is truly inspirational. Each weekday, elementary through high school students enthusiastically engage in a diverse array of classes within the DBG STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) lab. These courses cover a wide spectrum, encompassing boxing, STEM, chess, dance, nutrition, and more. The best part? The program is entirely cost-free. DBG’s unique approach empowers young individuals to take charge of their own destinies while enjoying the unwavering support of dedicated faculty and mentors.

Sweeney says, “The kids drive our programming. I don’t come up with this, the kids do. If you visit DBG, when you see the staff, you see the students. We make sure they have a voice, and I believe that’s what sets us apart from other programs.”

Researchers are now on a quest to understand what motivates students to enthusiastically “opt in” and how DBG’s holistic approach, which values student input in programming decisions, fosters student engagement. What sets DBG apart is its remarkable ability to engage students who are often underrepresented in STEM fields. Graduates like Asia Williams, an aspiring architect currently pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Detroit Mercy, credit DBG for honing the skills that have paved the way for their success.

Amanda Case, Ph.D., an accomplished researcher and associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Purdue University’s College of Education, spearheads the study as the principal investigator. She underlines the significance of understanding how DBG inspires students to engage with non-mandatory STEM programs and how this participation augments their STEM proficiency, interests, and self-identities.

“Without the initial interest in STEM and a belief in themselves as capable STEM learners, which DBG provides, students are less likely to pursue STEM activities, majors, or careers, regardless of their potential in these subjects,” Dr. Case said. “The success of DBG’s program offers hope in addressing the nation’s ongoing struggle to keep pace with STEM education and innovation, a domain where the U.S. once led the world.”

Dr. Case’s association with the Downtown Boxing Gym dates back to 2013 when she was an assistant professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her decade-long study of DBG’s work and its impact has revealed the organization’s individualized approach, mentorship methodology, and impressive results.

Sweeney sees DBG as a safe space, a resource hub, and a launchpad for helping young people achieve their dreams. “Our students are the CEOs, innovators, and entrepreneurs of the future – the next great scientist, doctor, or engineer might be in our STEAM lab right now,” he proudly states.

This NSF grant not only acts as a catalyst for DBG’s expansion but also affirms the organization’s dedication to fostering young talent. DBG plans to enhance its campus, programs, and student body, exploring opportunities for results-driven replication and scale.

Harmonie is a student at DBG and is also the organization’s first Student Council President. Harmonie, who is an 11th-grade student, credits DBG’s hands-on approach to helping her come out of her shell and build the confidence to pursue dreams she didn’t know were possible for her.

“I got involved with Student Council to help people. DBG helped me see that the youth have a voice and there are things we can advocate for. They’ve allowed me the space to open up, be myself, and get my feet wet in multiple things that is helping shape who I become in the future.”

The future of DBG is bright, as expansion plans are in the works to build a new 17,000-square-foot state-of-the-art STEAM building on an adjacent property within the DBG campus. This new facility will not only increase the number of students served but also accelerate future programming and opportunities, providing students with the resources and modern amenities they need to excel. Another noteworthy development for the organization is the introduction of a new commercial kitchen. This expanded area will not only offer more room for serving nutritious meals but will also facilitate cooking classes and hands-on nutritional education.

Asiyah Williamson, currently serving as an Apprentice to the CEO and Associate Director of Athletics, shares a unique and close connection with DBG. Williamson is not only a valued member of the dedicated staff, providing guidance in athletics, mentorship, and literacy to children, but she also holds a special place in DBG’s history as a graduate of the program in 2014. She emphasizes the significance of building relationships in the work at DBG and expresses her enthusiasm for the organization’s expansion, made possible by the NSF grant and Purdue University.

“Being able to offer more is what excites me,” says Williamson. “When I was a student DBG had the bare minimum and with that the organization was still able to impact change. The expansion will allow us to touch more students. More space means we can admit more youth from our waiting list.”

The partnership between Purdue University and the Downtown Boxing Gym, supported by the NSF grant, serves as a testament to the incredible potential of programs like DBG and the power of education to transform lives and communities. For DBG, this grant represents a huge step toward achieving its mission of providing young people with the skills and knowledge to pursue their dreams and become the innovators and leaders of the future.

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