Midtown: Community

Summer camp helps kids get ahead

The summer doldrums never set in for hundreds of students, many of whom will return to school Monday.

They were too busy learning science, math and technology with Mop Top the Hip-Hop Scientist and his friends, Lollipop and Flip Flop.

The Mop Top Shop Summer Science and Technology Camp hosted more than 500 children from kindergarten through 12th grade at its Millbrook Road center and in other parts of North Carolina, teaching them to create, design, build and program robots and rockets, remote control cars, clay animation and more. They also learned about African-Americans who have impacted our lives.

The camp is the creation of Jackie Johnson, a graphic designer who has raised three sons.

“A lot of students were being asked to research people like Michael Jordan, or some other sports or entertainment figure,” Johnson said. “There’s so much more to black history than sports and entertainment.”

Johnson, 55, also knew African-American male students were lagging in science, math and just about everything else – and that those who weren’t, like her oldest, academically gifted son, faced social ridicule for being smart, not cool. Technology was revving up, but there wasn’t much to bring home to her own sons.

“I was buying computers, but I did not see anything that was education where African-American kids were the main characters,” she said. “They were always the friends in the video game or story. I wanted to design a main character that is African-American and loves learning. That’s how Mop Top came alive.”

It all started with a website.

Back in 2007, Johnson’s young cousin from Tennessee was assigned a report for February’s Black History Month, but he couldn’t identify a suitable subject. Johnson, who has undergraduate and master’s degrees in graphic design from N.C. State University, promised to help. She built a website that featured African-American scientists she researched and profiled. She featured people like Duke University professor Erich Jarvis, whose father’s drug habit left him living in a park and his family on welfare, so children in tough circumstances could relate.

Johnson promoted the website moptopshop.com as a teaching tool. Today, it has had more than 300,000 visitors, she said.

Later, she created Mop Top the Hip Hop Scientist as the mascot. In person, Mop Top’s shoes are filled by Johnson’s middle son and “right hand man,” Chris Hawkins, 28. Mop Top and his friends Lollipop and Flip Flop are in tune with pop culture and in love with learning.

In 2008, she launched a small summer camp in Raleigh that attracted 13 students. This year, 45 campers enrolled in a nine-week camp.

Two of them were the sons of Eugene and Felicia McGill. “They’re a little bit more independent and confident; doing intricate things on their own without asking for help, really demonstrating independent thought,” Eugene McGill said of his sons Malik, 10, and Makari, 6. “It’s all about the different, fun things in life they can do other than playing Xbox games all day.”

Kiandre Carr, 10, a rising fifth-grader at Hunter Elementary School, understands why.

“I learned new things and I experienced new things, but they made it fun,” he said of the Mop Top crew. “Now, in science I will already know some stuff my teacher will be proud of me – and I can make good grades.”

Kiandre’s mom, Tremika Middleton, wants to send him again. “It was almost like he was going to a mini-college. I take my hat off: I saw my son having a great time and it stepped up his educational level,” she said. “That’s what I enjoy.”