Nicholas Haystings ’16 (Mechanical Engineering) held several engineering jobs while attending and after graduating from Sacramento State. At all but one of them, he was the only person of color.
If that’s going to change, he says, it’s critical that young people from underrepresented backgrounds receive the message early that the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are a place for them, too.
“It can’t start in college. It can’t even start in high school,” Haystings said. “The conversation has to happen when they’re at a young age, before the pressures of life and society get to them. Before they’re told that STEM isn’t for them, STEM isn’t for girls, STEM isn’t for people that look like you.”
Haystings is doing his part. He is the co-founder and executive director of Square Root Academy, an organization that provides STEM-based education and experiences to underrepresented groups, all at no cost to the participants. The program works with several local school district to provide after-school programming for fifth- through 12-graders, while also sponsoring STEM-focused community events.
Going into its third year, Square Root Academy anticipates it will have about 150 scholars in its after-school programs, while reaching thousands more through its annual Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park festivals.
“Growing up, I always had two goals: Become an engineer, and give back to the community,” Haystings said. “Once I realized my goal of becoming an engineer, got my degree, had some industry experience under my belt, there were a few things that were still bothering me. When you succeed, you’re supposed to bring people up with you, and that was why we started the academy.”
His work is getting noticed: The Sacramento Business Journal named Haystings to its 2019 “40 Under 40” list, which recognizes young professionals in the Sacramento region who “excel in their workplaces and in their communities.”
Interested in science and engineering from a young age, Haystings, a first-generation college student and Sacramento native, enrolled at Sacramento State to be close to home. He eventually decided to major in engineering and appreciated the University’s focus on experiential learning.
“A lot of STEM-based majors at universities, they’re very theory-based,” he said. “Sac State allowed us to get hands-on with the technology, to really experiment.”
The University also exposed him to a diverse range of people, who came with diverse ways of thinking and approaching problems, something he learned from and has carried into his professional life.
“It was a bit of culture shock, in a good way, in a way that helped me grow,” he said. “It expanded my understanding of the world and also my understanding of people.”
While a student, Haystings approached Lorenzo Smith, now the dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science, to discuss Square Root Academy. Smith was instantly struck by Haystings’ maturity, vision and commitment.
“He had a full time job and he gave that up to advance the mission of Square Root Academy, which, I’m not sure I would do that,” Smith said. “I can tell you I would not have done that. (It takes) someone like Nicholas who has that dedication to the community and also confidence in his abilities.”
Because he is from the neighborhoods Square Root Academy serves, Smith added, Haystings has credibility when he goes into the community to spread awareness of STEM careers.
“There’s a hunger for what Nicholas is providing,” Smith said. “He’s tapping into a need.”
After graduation, Haystings worked as an environmental engineer in both the public and private sector before helping to start Square Root Academy in 2016. The organization was funded entirely by Haystings and his two co-founders its first year. Today, private and corporate donations as well as partner school districts provide financial support.
At Valley High School, Haystings’ alma mater, working with Square Root Academy has helped students who may not have seen STEM as an option realize that it is.
“It changes their future, their life trajectory,” said Alex Gibbs, Valley High’s engineering chair. “A lot of these students wouldn’t believe that they could go to college and become engineers. But once you get them to believe in themselves, you’ve overcome the hardest hurdle.”
After utilizing Square Root Academy’s after-school programs last year, Valley High has transitioned to a mentorship model, in which the high school students receive résumé; review, help with college applications and other guidance from someone either studying a STEM field in college or working in a STEM career.
“We just really appreciate the work (Nicholas) does with us,” Gibbs said. “I’m glad he’s come back to Valley and given back to where he came from. We can’t appreciate that enough.”
Haystings and Square Root Academy have made accessibility – that is, ensuring their programming is available and relatable to the populations they serve – a priority. The Great STEM Summit and Hack the Park events are held in underserved neighborhoods such as Meadowview and South Sacramento, so that transportation is not a barrier to attendance. They are open to the public, which provides parents with the opportunity to see and engage with what their kids are learning. And the after-school programs are taught by professionals, academics and students who come from similar backgrounds as the participants.
“That representation piece is so huge,” Haystings said. “If a scholar doesn’t see themselves or anyone that looks like them in that position, they assume it’s not for them. It’s important that we show them they can do it and people who look like them can succeed in this field.”
For more information about Square Root Academy, visit the organization’s website.