Nov. 8 marks STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Day, and BlavityU caught up with two young game-changers who are already making big moves in this broad area of study.

Damilola Awofisayo, 18, and Jones Mays, 17, are two students in the tech world who notably won Apple’s Swift Student Challenge. We got the opportunity to ask them about their journeys in honor of STEAM Day.

First, we must address the difference between STEAM and its more well-known predecessor, STEM.

While STEM started as an amalgamation of science-related fields and initially didn’t have much to do with the humanities, STEAM expands upon this and explicitly “uses tools such as data visualization or fine art imagery to deepen one’s understanding of science, math and technology,” according to the University of Central Florida.

Regarding the significance of STEAM acknowledging the arts, Awofisayo remarked that “the arts provide creativity in problem-solving that is required for success in the diversity of fields in STEM.”

“With arts, you are able to provide new perspectives that are not confined by the rigid expectation in traditional STEM fields amidst our fast-moving and ever-changing society,” she added.

Mays shared a similar sentiment.

As a person whose first love was the arts, I believe in the importance of STEAM since almost all of the world’s most innovative feats, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and even the iPhone, involved the arts in some form or fashion,” Mays said. “Whether that be in the form of their design, implementation, or packaging, the use of the arts in conjunction with STEM allows us to produce things that are truly astounding.”

“A good education in the arts can allow students pursuing a career in STEM to better format, explain, and even present their findings to the broader public. This is important because even the best ideas are worthless if they cannot be communicated to their target audience,” he continued, giving a shoutout to some of the key “soft skills” that one can acquire through the arts.

Awofisayo also spoke on her groundbreaking TecHacks hackathons.

“I cofounded an all-female and nonbinary hackathon that aims to provide opportunities to students around the world with mentorship and a supportive community they can learn from and work within computer science,” she explained. “Our hackathons in 2020 and 2021 both gained over 800+ participants, each with people from over 60+ countries.”

As for Mays, he filled us in on his useful app, IVY, which is “a platform that allows its users to detect invasive vines by simply uploading an image, taking a picture within the app, or using their location.”

“The app finds the invasive plants within the user’s input image by using a custom machine learning model built with Apple’s createML tool,” he noted, adding that IVY “was inspired by my grandfather, who had a community garden in Tunica, Mississippi.”

“I distinctly remember him having to fight an invasive vine named the Kudzu vine. When he, unfortunately, died during the pandemic, I knew that I wanted to honor his legacy by creating IVY,” Mays continued.

IVY app (Courtesy of Jenny Chang)

With Awofisayo and Mays already making big moves in the industry, we wanted to know what exactly sparked their interests in the STEAM space.

“From 7-11 years old, I lived in Lagos, Nigeria. Here, we did not have stable electricity and minimal computer science education, and thus, I saw technology as inconsistent and unreliable,” Awofisayo began, adding that she began attending the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology upon her return to the United States.

“I was put in a computer science class in my first year. Since my first coding project in that class, I fell in love with computer science, and my perception shifted. Here, computer science was a tool, my tool to create solutions for the issues I observed in my society, from Virginia to Lagos, Nigeria, and I felt that I could make a difference in this fast-moving, influential field as well,” she continued.

Damilola Awofisayo (Courtesy of Jenny Chang)

Mays’s interests were also sparked by a computer science class, which is sometimes a required elective, depending on the school district.

“I think that my computer science principles class was what really sparked my interest in arts, computer science, and their intersection,” Mays explained. “I found the field of computer science exciting since I could apply my creative, artistic, and problem-solving nature in a way that allows me to create tangible products.”

Jones Mays (Courtesy of Jenny Chang)

Regarding the challenges that they’ve personally faced during their respective STEAM journeys, these young entrepreneurs disclosed that facing rejection and overcoming self-doubt were big obstacles that they had to deal with, though they were able to push through these hardships and pursue their passions.

They also shared some of the opportunities they’ve gone on to pursue, including the aforementioned Swift Student Challenge, which is a chance to “learn more about Swift and use Apple technologies,” according to Awofisayo.

“Some of the other opportunities I have done include Kode With Klossy, an all-female and nonbinary coding camp, Jane Street’s Unboxed program on the software engineering track, and over 10 different hackathons, both virtual and in-person,” she further explained, letting readers in on her path to success (so far).

In his response, Mays acknowledged the importance of utilizing networking sites like LinkedIn to stay in the know and take advantage of free resources; he also recommended that “students learn computer science by completing projects instead of learning from a textbook.”

Of course, we were dying to know what these teens were planning on pursuing in the future, and we got the answers we were looking for.

“I am interested in social innovation with technology or using technology to solve problems in communities and societal institutions. I want to lead an organization that creates applications that empower communities with a diverse set of developers from backgrounds and places all over the world,” Awofisayo shared.

As he’s still wrapping up his high school studies, Mays is focused on college at the moment, though he hopes to eventually “expand IVY into the educational industry so that it can be used as a tool for teachers to teach their students conservation.”

Finally, we got some warm words of wisdom for others who are aspiring to dive into the STEAM space — particularly if they’re of a traditionally marginalized community.

“There is a place for you, and you are valued in this field,” Awofisayo expressed. “Each person in computer science brings a unique perspective that is necessary to advance the field. There are also people and communities willing to help you; you are not alone. Finding those people, peers and mentors are very helpful in feeling comfortable and finding your space in the field.”

“As a person of color in an industry such as tech, you may be the only person from your community in a room, workplace, or even class. But do not let this or anyone else stop you from achieving your goals. Build connections that support you, not tear you down. Know that you have every right to be in the position you are. Lastly, ask for help when you need it because no one should suffer in silence,” Mays powerfully noted.

Happy STEAM Day, and shoutout to both Damilola Awofisayo and Jones Mays!