A Baltimore Youth Program Mixes A Passion For Dirt Bikes With Science
In an empty lot along the railroad tracks in Baltimore, the passing train horn competes with the reverberating buzz of dirt bikes.
The buzz is coming from a Saturday morning class for students at B-360, a nonprofit that uses dirt bikes to teach elementary and high school students math and science.
"Fixing and repairing a bike is mechanical engineering," says Brittany Young, an engineering sciences educator who founded the program. "Most people don't realize when dirt bike riders pop a wheelie, it's actually like a physics equation."
About 7,000 students have been through B-360 in the last four years. They don't just learn to do tricks on bikes. They also learn to code, operate a 3D printer and build robots. High school students learn how to repair and build bikes as well as safe riding skills and tricks. The goal is to spark their interest in a career in science, engineering or math.
Ricardo James, 14, recently finished the classroom portion of the program, and built a solar-powered vehicle that fits in his palm. Now, he says he is eager to get on a dirt bike and learn how to do an aerial backflip.
"He showed a lot more interest in this program than regular school," says his father, Miguel James. "It has a little more hands-on training, a little more practical. Then it lets you use imagination."
Normally, dirt bikes are illegal to ride in most cities like Baltimore. The Baltimore Police Department started a dirt bike task force in 2016, but it has since been dissolved. The head of the task force said in 2018 that it confiscated hundreds of dirt bikes and that 90% of suspects were convicted.
Most riders, who are Black youths, end up with fines and even prison time. Owners cannot even register them. But through B-360's partnership with Baltimore police, these youths have a legal place to ride, repair their bikes and improve their skills.
Although she does not ride dirt bikes, Baltimore native Young says she grew up around them — smelling the gas and hearing them in the streets of her neighborhood. She founded B-360 after the uprising that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.
Young had two goals — to find a way to keep nonviolent offenses from turning into incarceration and also to attract more Black students into STEM careers. Although STEM employment has grown about 80% in the last three decades, less than 10% of that workforce is Black.
But Young also had a personal reason for starting B-360 — her younger brother was incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
"I ... became really adamant about wanting more solutions. And then that same year the city created the dirt bike police task force," Young says. "So I wanted to, of course, make it more safe ... but did not believe we should just only police our ways out of it."
Earlier this month, B-360 began working with the state attorney's office to divert riders who have been arrested for a dirt bike offense away from prison, and toward their passion.
"They have great programs in terms of education, in connecting people to jobs and training," says Michael Collins, the director of strategic policy and planning for the state attorney's office. "They have a great ethos around keeping people off the streets as much as possible, in showing people how to learn from their passion around dirt bikes."
Jeremiah — we're not using his last name to protect his privacy — was doing his first day of community service with B-360 as part of a diversion program. He had been hit by a car while riding his dirt bike, and was picked up by the police. Instead of going through the criminal justice system, he is volunteering at B-360 to get his charges dropped.
"I'm staying here; not going back to the streets. They finally gave us someplace to ride," Jeremiah says. "I just like being around bikes — just the excitement and the adrenaline. You can learn a lot from a bike."
A large component of the program is the bonding experience for youth. The instructors act as mentors, checking up on grades and getting young people to open up about their lives.
Harold Toms, 35, who has been riding since he was seven, says he notices big changes in the kids he works with. He says they are eager to get up early on a Saturday morning to go to class.
"It's an opportunity for us as big brothers, not only teaching them a trade and they're learning something and keeping them off the streets, but you can have real conversations and talk about life," Toms says. "Because it's bigger than bikes."
His students Daron Harrell and Damon Harrison say there's a brotherhood in being a dirt bike rider. They really bond over learning tricks and repairing bikes together.
"I could be feeling down, and once I get on that dirt bike all that stress and sadness is gone," says Harrell, 14, who wants to be a mechanical engineer. "It helps me with my problems."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.