When Will Johnson was 15, he took part in a science fair where he helped build a model train with reverse magnets that levitated. Today, he’s a successful visual effects professional with credits like “Iron Man 3,” “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and “Maleficent.”

It all started at A-MAN (African-American Male Achievers Network), a nonprofit that encourages minorities to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Today, he’s an alumnus who continues to mentor the kids who attend the A-MAN programs.

“This was a fun place to be,” said Johnson about the nonprofit. “It’s a great place to be.”

A-MAN was founded in 1991 and provides year-round, STEM-related programs using laser beams, robotics and computer labs in hands-on activities for students K-12. The goal is to encourage underserved African-American and Latino students to enter STEM careers.

The nonprofit serves about 1,200 students in Los Angeles County and recently received a $30,000 grant from Edison International. Over the years, the company has provided more than $218,000 toward A-MAN’s STEM-related programs.

“Access and opportunity are the key,” said Bettye Davis Walker, president and co-founder of A-MAN. Our programs mean that “our youngsters in the inner cities will have the opportunities to be able to be prepared for STEM access in the 21st century.”

Today, A-MAN provides STEM education to students who are 50 percent African-American, 49 percent Latino and 1 percent Asian-American. Some of the cities where the students reside include: Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lawndale.

According to A-MAN, in 2000 only 25 percent of the 1.9 million black men between the ages of 18-24 attended colleges. Census data also shows that one out of four African-American male high school students drop out before they graduate.

“The earlier they get this knowledge, the longer it stays with them and it excites them,” said Walker. “For youngsters, early intervention is the key.”

Austin Clements, 32, was introduced to A-MAN by family friends while in middle school. Today, he is an active alumnus and is part of a team working to launch the nonprofit’s Virtual Reality Academy this summer.

“I’ve always been interested in STEM,” said Clements, whose father worked as an engineer. “I’ve always been interested in new technology and gadgets.”

Clements earned his MBA at NYU and today is a successful venture capitalist. He credits A-MAN for part of his success.

“In school it wasn’t cool to be interested in science, technology or engineering,” he said, noting the lack of role models while he was growing up. And it’s why he continues to mentor the students at A-MAN. “I want kids to understand it’s cool and fun and that there are lots of opportunities there.”

In addition to the upcoming Virtual Reality Academy, A-MAN offers a Saturday Science Academy and an After School Academy. The nonprofit also partners with the U.S. Air Force and the National Society of Black Engineers in their STEM programs.

“We want to use STEM as a motivational tool for the 21st century,” said Walker. “STEM is at the core of everything we do.”

For more information: aman.org.