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Baltimore STEM Program Taps Into Students' Passion For Dirt Biking

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Dirt bike riding in the city sounds improbable. These off-road motorcycles are very popular, especially among young Black men in places like Baltimore. The bikes are often unregistered and technically illegal, and that can get some riders in trouble. NPR's Rosemary Misdary reports from Baltimore on a program that aims to channel enthusiasm for dirt biking into a learning and legal experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

ROSEMARY MISDARY, BYLINE: Along the train tracks in an empty parking lot, a couple of young men unload two dirt bikes from the back of a small truck - a red Honda CR85 and a blue Yamaha YZ125. A line of helmets sits on the roof of a nearby car. One by one, they disappear as students reach up, grab one and push it over their heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT BIKE ENGINE REVVING)

MISDARY: Pretty quickly, they're ready to rip. Students are twisting throttles, popping wheelies with a knee on the seat and riding with no hands.

DARON HARRELL: It's like everything is gone. It's a stress reliever.

DAMON RAY HARRISON: You get joy. You feel good about yourself. Like, you feel like you're doing something good.

HAROLD TOMS: You know, once you get on your bike, you don't think about nothing else.

HARRELL: I feel free when I ride. My mind be clear. Like, I could be feeling down. And once I get on that dirt bike, all that stress and sadness is gone.

MISDARY: That's Daron Harrell and Damon Ray Harrison and their instructor Harold Toms. Riding dirt bikes is more than a passion for them. It's science. And early on a Saturday morning, they're doing more than just shredding and doing tricks in an empty parking lot. These students are learning engineering in a class designed by B-360, a nonprofit that works with the city of Baltimore and the police to teach writing and mechanics using dirt bikes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: But, like, if you're, like, a 90-degree angle, nine times out of 10...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's a 90-degree angle?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When you straight up.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, an acute angle?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, when you, like, 70 degrees - like, that's, like, when you halfway off the ground.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: When you first get the bike up.

BRITTANY YOUNG: Most people don't realize when dirt bike riders pop a wheelie, it's actually like a physics equation.

MISDARY: The idea was the vision of B-360's founder Brittany Young.

YOUNG: I always tell people I'm born, raised and never leaving Baltimore.

MISDARY: Young says dirt bike riding is the sport lots of Baltimore residents grow up with, including her.

YOUNG: I can smell the gas. I can hear the engines revving. I can see the dirt bikes. And as a kid, I was watching the riders in the parks pop wheelies or fix bikes.

MISDARY: The origins of B-360 go back to 2015 and the uprising that followed after Freddie Gray died while in Baltimore police custody. Young felt she had to do something. But there were other reasons, too.

YOUNG: I also witnessed my youngest brother be incarcerated and tried as an adult for nonviolent offenses. And so I also became really adamant about wanting more solutions. And then that same year, the city created the Dirt Bike Police Task Force. So I wanted to, of course, make it more safe and agree we should but did not believe we should just only police our ways out of it.

MISDARY: Young, who has an engineering science degree, realized that dirt bike riding could become a source of fellowship and a teaching tool for these young people.

YOUNG: Fixing and repairing your bikes is mechanical engineering, and then love of brotherhood and sisterhood and all of that to build our program to what it is today.

MISDARY: About 7,000 students, young men and women, 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, sparking their interest in a career in science, engineering and mathematics.

RICARDO JAMES: There's a white, a red and a green cog. And then I attach the wheels...

RICARDO: And that's eighth-grader Ricardo James. He's showing off his palm-sized, solar-powered car he built with help from B-360. But today, he's also excited about popping his first aerial backflip. His father Miguel says the class has kept his son engaged during this extremely challenging year of remote learning.

MIGUEL JAMES: He's shown a lot more interest in this program than regular schoolwork. It has a little more hands-on training, a little more practical. And then they let you use your imagination.

MISDARY: The program helps reduce incarceration rates. Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott says B-360 has been instrumental in decreasing motor bike arrests by keeping riders off the street. It's also part of the state attorney's effort to divert young people away from the prison system. Michael Collins is the strategic policy and planning director.

MICHAEL COLLINS: I think it's a phenomenal program. I think they have great programs in terms of education and connecting people to jobs and training. They have a great ethos around keeping people off the streets as much as possible and showing people, you know, how to learn from their passion around dirt bikes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Then he said, all right, just slow down. Let the clutch out in first gear. I did. I was like (vocalizing). Boom.

MISDARY: Today the kids are telling war stories about trying to pull off moves like wheelies and knee-knocking and something called the Superman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: But don't panic because once you panic, you're going to wind up messing up.

MISDARY: Instructor Harold Thomas has been riding since he was 7, when he says he ran into a fence on the first day. Now 35, he sees changes in the kids he works with here.

TOMS: They're coming out early. Man, they're ready. That's cool, you know, when you get young guys that's getting up early on a Saturday morning to come out and ride bikes. I think this is an opportunity for us as big brothers, getting to have real conversations with them and talk about life, you know? When they see what you got going on and they see that you can be cool, you know, you don't have to sell drugs or you don't have to wear your pants down off your butt - because it's bigger than bikes.

MISDARY: Toms hopes he can make an impact on people like Jeremiah. We're not using his last name to protect his privacy. He's doing his first day of community service with B-360 as part of a diversion program through the city of Baltimore and the police department.

JEREMIAH: I got caught on the bike. And I'm here to, like, drop my case, drop my charges and stuff.

YOUNG: You going back to the streets?

JEREMIAH: Nah, we not going back to the streets. They finally giving us somewhere to ride. But I'm going to stay here. I'm staying here. I just want to work on bikes. I just like being around bikes - just the excitement and the adrenaline, you know, everything about bikes. You can learn a lot from a bike.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT BIKE ENGINE REVVING)

MISDARY: It's late afternoon. Class continues with the resonating buzz of dirt bikes that does not throttle back. Taking turns, students cheer each other stunts and take laps around the parking lot as the sun goes down. Rosemary Misdary, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT BIKE ENGINE REVVING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.