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Fashion forward: High school student weaves STEM into style

When Jalani Maxwell was a high school sophomore at the STEM Early College at NC A&T, he designed the 3D shoe sole of the future.

“My project was to 3D print a shoe sole that is not only sustainable but functional. The shoe sole would have been for a moccasin,” Maxwell said of the year-long science capstone project in collaboration with a small group of his peers. Maxwell’s team fell just short of having the right filaments to print a flexible sole but had thought through a bigger plan for their prototype — a kind of next-level Dr. Scholl’s. 

“We wanted to move this system into the home because we felt that the 3D printing technology would be in the home in the next decade and a half,” Maxwell said. “You would step on the mats inside your home, and then it would upload a blueprint of your foot to our program, which would stem from a 3ds Max program.”

“Then it would have this blueprint of your sole and create a shoe sole for you that fits you best, so every shoe sole is one-of-one and is what the customer knew is best for them versus going to the store and getting a size 11 that every size 11 wears.”

Jalani Maxwell
Jalani Maxwell shares his experiences at the STEM Early College. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Now a senior, Maxwell recently submitted his internship project proposal to the fashion and merchandising department at A&T. Though his primary interest is fashion, the project criteria require him to infuse STEM — a constant theme through all courses at the Early College, even English.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I want to do clothes, but what are some issues in the world of fashion so I can help attack these issues so that I meet my criteria?'” Maxwell said.

His thoughts turned to ready-to-wear fashion and the era of trends and disposable clothes.

“Once something falls out of trend, they either throw it away or give it to a Goodwill or something,” Maxwell said. “We often dispose of clothes after they have blemishes such as a small hole or stain.”

His project proposal is based on repurposing disposed clothing, with the end goal of a fashion show. 

“Right now the idea is to get all the clothing from either donations or going thrifting, and then we’re going to completely dissect each clothing article and then put them back together with something else to make it into something new,” Maxwell said.

If his proposal is accepted, the fashion project will carry Maxwell through the spring, and he already has his eyes set on college. He hopes to attend NC State University next fall to major in graphic design and minor in merchandise and says his training in STEM will serve him well.

“Just being able to merge the two ideas, because of course fashion is a piece of art … it goes hand in hand with science, especially with textiles and the various types of materials that go into producing your goods,” Maxwell said. 

But thinking with a STEM lens didn’t always come easy. Maxwell remembers his sophomore year of all Advanced Placement classes, including Calculus 1 and 2, as “the roughest year of my life.”

“I struggled so much, but I feel like this is when everybody was struggling, and it built a community between us,” he said. “We learned to work together and advocate for each other as well as ourselves.”

Maxwell’s classmate Ayana Lawson agreed with the sentiment of camaraderie, saying, “I don’t think I would have made it this far without the students.”

Environmental science students participate in a group activity. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

The spirit of collaboration is fostered by the Early College’s philosophies spearheaded by Principal Jamisa Williams, who joined the school four years ago. In that time the school has not only won STEM education awards like Niche 2019 Best Schools for STEM in NC, but also awards for character, with the school being named a 2018-2023 National School of Character.

“Beyond the grit and the growth mindset and our spirit of innovation, we want our students to have a real feeling about community, people, and care,” Williams said.

And the students have followed suit. “The one thing I’m really going to take from Ms. Williams is the character development,” Lawson said. “Before I came to [STEM Early College], I thought what I had to offer was my academics, but I’ve realized I think my purpose in the world is to do better for others, and that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from STEM — that my role is just to make sure the world is a better place for all of us to exist and not just academically.”

For Maxwell, STEM education has been a way to not only connect to his interest in fashion, but also to others.

“It’s taught me to think in more complex ways and to see a larger picture versus how this is just going to affect me and those in my immediate circle, but how this could affect society as a whole, or the upcoming generations,” Maxwell said. “I got to see the bigger picture in things.”

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.