A Black male scientist who grew up in the Millcreek housing projects and ended up as a top scientist at a pharmaceutical company is building a science lab, the Grand Hank Science Center and Community Space, in the middle of an underdeveloped area of Germantown, for underserved youth.
Tyraine Ragsdale, known by his deejay name “Grand Hank,” has traveled the country for more than 20 years, hosting science events for youth, teaching them science skills through hip hop.
Now, he is working on a more stationary project.
Hank bought a 10,000 square foot former watchmaking factory in 2011 and since that time he has worked to convert the building into a space for the community, especially urban students, to observe, study and perform science experiments. To date, he has gutted the entire building, installed an administration office and is now working on the labs and presentation space.
“We are in a minority community and the center is for inner city kids,” he said. “We want to make sure kids who look like us have the opportunity to embrace science. We want to give them an opportunity to learn things at the deepest level.”
The blueprint for the multi level center includes “three math suites, four technology rooms to learn gaming and [creation] of mobile applications; an analytical chemistry lab; two engineering suites; a fitness center; and a kitchen to “get into the science of cooking.”
He described a typical day at the center as one that would involve “bus” loads of youth coming into the center, daily, for a few hours to learn different types of science — physical, chemistry, biology and engineering — included. Their studies would mirror real experiments, with lab testing, results recording and concluding presentations. Youth would also be exposed to lectures by science professionals, and mentorships. In the evening, said Hank, the Center would be available for “community based events.”
“We are providing an access point for not only kids to learn science, but to see the practical applications as it relates to the environment we live in,” Hank said.
The center recently received lab equipment, valued at $100,000, from Norristown small business Peak Tek, bringing Hank closer to the completion of the Grand Hank Science Center.
The equipment the center received is Chromatograpy lab equipment, machinery used for “ion exchange” and separates various substances, gas, gel and liquid included.
“This is groundbreaking,” Ragsdale said. “There is no center in the United States with this type of technology that’s available to inner city kids. This gives us an opportunity to not only wet chemistry, but it also gives us an opportunity to do chemistry at the highest level. This is what the big companies use. Now, our kids will be able to learn and utilize this technology prior to them being exposed to it in the industry.”
Peak Tek CEO George Bruce said his company made the donation because they agree with what Hank is doing.
“[We] decided to donate the equipment, so we can bring inner city kids in to learn [science].
From what I’ve seen so far, there are not many minorities going to [science] conferences, at biotech companies or pharmaceutical companies and not too many represented in the field.”
The donation marked an important milestone in the center’s progression, as Hank said, up to this point, he has funded the project from his own pockets.
The support he has gotten so far, from others, has mainly been pledges of future partnership. The Immersion Science Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center is one of them.
“Grand Hank’s unique ability to draw students into STEM will help us grow our supportive community to sustain them in challenging STEM majors in college and to really identify those students who will be the next generation of cancer researchers in Philadelphia,” said Alana O’Reilly, Ph.D, Director of the Immersion program. “We will encourage students from the Grand Hank Science Center to participate in one of our many Immersion Science programs, all of which are currently at no cost to the participants, to give them the next level of science training in preparation for STEM majors in college.”
Hank anticipates the building a soft opening of the center by June. Up until then, he welcomes “partners, donors and people to help with the build out of the center. The vision is by any means necessary,” he said. “If we don’t get funding from a bank, if we don’t get grants, we are going to do it anyway. This is a blessing.”
At press time, Hank was scheduled to speak at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) annual conference in Nashville, where he will also receive their Presidential Citation, for “a person or organization that has significantly promoted science education through extraordinary contributions.”
“Grand Hank is a motivating and inspiring individual who has a unique way of making science education come alive,” said NSTA President Carolyn Hayes. “We chose him because he is a role model that connects with and inspires youth. He’s found a very effective strategy to engage students in science and we want to share with teachers his enthusiasm and success with students.”