NSF awards $2M to Purdue’s College of Ed, Downtown Boxing Gym for STEM-based research

The 5-year collaborative grant will study DBG’s innovative and impactful STEM-focused youth programming to better understand, measure, and magnify its long-term impact

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $2 million grant to Purdue University’s College of Education and the Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG), a free, out-of-school-time program on Detroit’s east side, for a five-year research study to further evaluate, measure, and magnify the far-reaching impact of DBG’s innovative STEM-based programming.

Jessica Hauser and Amanda Case standing next to each other smiling
(l) Jessica Hauser, executive director of the Downtown Boxing Gym; and (r) Amanda Case, associate professor of Counseling Psychology in the Purdue University College of Education (Photo provided)

Every weekday, elementary through high school students opt in to participate in a variety of classes in the DBG STEAM lab – studying everything from computer coding, robotics, and digital animation, to insects, weather patterns, animal life cycles, and more. Researchers want to learn what inspires students to enthusiastically “opt in” and how DBG’s holistic approach, which incorporates student voice in programming decisions, creates opportunities for student engagement.

Of note is DBG’s ability to engage students who are significantly underrepresented in STEM fields. Many graduates, like Asia Williams, an architect pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Detroit Mercy, are applying the skills learned at DBG in their career paths.

“Understanding how DBG encourages students to engage with non-mandatory STEM programming and how participation enables students to grow their STEM efficacy, interests, and identities, will allow us to refine and more broadly apply those methods,” said Amanda S. Case, PhD, an award-winning researcher and associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Purdue University’s College of Education. Case will serve as the study’s principal investigator.

“Without the initial interest in STEM and a sense of 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,” Case added. “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.”

“Amanda Case’s work with the DBG clearly illustrates the intersection of high quality, creative scholarship and a commitment to equitable access,” said Phillip J. VanFossen, interim dean of the College of Education at Purdue. “Professor Case’s award characterizes our faculty’s commitment to research that improves sustainable practices in education that impact the world around us. The support from NSF clearly confirms that we are not alone in our belief in the importance of promoting inclusive excellence so each person may have equitable access and opportunities for their next giant leap.”

Case first connected with the Downtown Boxing Gym in 2013 when she was an assistant professor of educational psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit. For more than a decade, she has studied DBG’s work and impact, noting the nonprofit organization’s individualized approach, mentorship methodology, and remarkable results.

Founded in 2007 by Khali Sweeney, DBG serves more than 200 boys and girls annually, ages 8-18, with continued support to 50+ alumni through age 25. The program breaks down barriers, delivering academic and non-academic intervention, athletics, mentorship, transportation, meals, diverse programming, and more, Monday-Friday, all year round.

Students stay and grow with DBG, remaining consistently in the program year after year through graduation and beyond. This long-term, individualized commitment allows for long-term measurement with data that reflects the success of the model. DBG has had a 100% high school graduation rate among all participating students for 16 straight years.

“We provide equitable access to education – a safe space, a resource hub and a launching pad to help young people achieve their dreams,” said Khali Sweeney, DBG’s founder and CEO. “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. This grant provides a huge opportunity to help scale our proven methods. DBG is grateful to the National Science Foundation and Purdue University for recognizing the impact of our program, supporting our students, and advancing DBG’s mission.”

DBG’s Executive Director Jessica Hauser will act as a co-principal investigator, serving as a liaison between DBG and Purdue researchers and assisting with data collection and analysis. Additional co-principal investigators include Signe Kastberg, PhD, professor of mathematics education and an endowed chair in elementary education at Purdue; and Nielsen Pereira, PhD, director of the Gifted Education Research & Resource Institute (GER2I) and associate professor of Gifted, Creative and Talented Studies at Purdue. Graduate students and other members of the DBG team will also participate in the research study.

“The NSF grant will act as a catalyst as DBG works to expand our campus, programs, and student body, and we explore opportunities for results-driven replication and scale,” said Hauser. “We are thankful to Dr. Case for her long standing commitment to studying the Downtown Boxing Gym and its impact, and to the National Science Foundation and Purdue University for lifting up our work. We’re excited to dig in and do this important research that will have a profound and long-term impact on so many young lives.”

While highly successful and impactful, the current DBG STEAM lab is located in a repurposed garage within the boxing gym, lacking resources and modern amenities. Expansion plans to increase the number of students served and accelerate future programming and opportunities include a new 17,000 square foot state-of-the-art STEAM building to be built on an adjacent property within the DBG campus.

Sources: Amanda Case, amandacase@purdue.edu; Jessica Hauser, Jessica Hauser, jhauser@dbgdetroit.org

Writer: Robin Schwartz, robin.gemini5@gmail.com

Founded in 2007 by Khali Sweeney, the Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization on Detroit’s east side that trains kids for life. DBG provides a free, out-of-school time program to students ages 8-18, with continued support to alumni through age 25, and integral participation with each student’s family structure. Programming includes a powerful combination of transformative mentorship, individualized academic support, sports sampling including boxing, diverse enrichment programs, social-emotional skills building, and more. By working diligently to build relationships with students, rooted in honesty, respect, and trust, DBG maintains a culture of achievement. Students actively participate in academic goal setting, mentor their peers, advocate for themselves, and have a voice in what they learn. The result? A 100% high school graduation rate for 16 straight years and confident, focused, young people with clear direction and the foundational skills to achieve their dreams.

The U.S. National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that supports science and engineering in all 50 states and U.S. territories.