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New program engineers a pipeline into STEM fields

In a trailer classroom behind Maxwell Elementary School, a group of 10- and 11-year olds plotted how to make a small solar-powered race car they were building follow an accurate, predictable trajectory.

“You guys are going to have to knock over a triangle of bowling pins,” the students’ mentor, Jillian Smith, told them. “What’s going to help you knock them over?”

Shallace Locks, 11, proposed attaching two dowel rods to the front of the car to topple the makeshift bowling pins, which were actually small water bottles. The rods protruded outward like an insect’s feelers.

“There you go,” Smith said. “Our car is going to have fangs.”

After trying out a few configurations, the students eventually decided instead to attach a rod to the front of their car to act as a battering ram.

And after the lesson about the battering ram, more lessons followed: Swapping battery packs for solar panels, they learned they had to adjust the weight of their cars to account for the different level of power that the panels provided. And when, in the competition, their car swung wide to the left of their target, the students made on-the-fly adjustments to help correct its course for their second try.

Teaching elementary students that kind of trial-and-error problem-solving technique is the heart of the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) program, which has enrolled nearly 250 Denver Public Schools rising fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders this summer and concludes its three-week run this Friday.

The program’s goal is to give students like 10-year-old Josh White, who just finished fifth grade at Park Hill Elementary School, the type of hands-on problem-solving experience that they sometimes don’t receive during the elementary school year.

“At my school, we would learn about like, plants and how they grow and how fast they grow,” White said. “Here, you have to build things, and then you test to see what works.”

Giving students role models in the STEM fields

The program is designed not only to give the students a strong basis in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, but also to instill in them a strong interest in pursuing those fields as a career path and to give them role models to follow if they do.

Staff at the National Society of Black Engineers started the program in 2007 in Washington, D.C., as a long-view attempt to remedy the under-representation of African Americans in careers in the STEM fields. The program has since expanded to 10 other cities, including Denver, where it was run for the first time this year.

According to figures released by the federal Economics and Statistics Administration in 2011, African-Americans and Hispanics each account for about 6 percent of Americans employed in STEM fields, while they account for 11 and 14 percent, respectively, of the workforce as a whole.

“All of us see the shortfall and we really feel the responsibility and the need to bridge that gap,” said Karen Nakandakare, diversity program manager at the engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill, the primary sponsor of the program in Denver.

Employees of CH2M Hill, after learning about the SEEK program through the company’s black employees network, reached out to the mayor’s office and Denver Public Schools to place the program at Maxwell and to recruit students. Nearly three-quarters of the 244 students enrolled are black and 16 percent are Hispanic. Just over a third of the program’s students are girls.

The program serves a dual purpose for the company. The program is designed to be run and taught by college students, most but not all of whom plan not to become teachers, but who are instead majoring in subjects like mechanical and electrical engineering. CH2M Hill hopes to use the program as a recruiting tool for future employees.

But more importantly, the idea is that over the course of the program, the college students become role models for the younger children, teaching them not only the academic skills but also the path to college-level study of science and mathematics. The program hired 50 mentors to teach this summer, half of whom attend Colorado universities. More than half of the college student mentors are black, and half are women.

“We’re reaching the kids who tend to be forgotten about,” said Ryan Martin, a student at California State University of Northridge and the assistant site director of the Denver program.

Sparking an interest in engineering, then sustaining it

The college students go through a week-long training on the curriculum, which was developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and learn basic classroom management skills. Stephanie Ho, a rising sophomore at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said that even with three college student mentors overseeing classes of roughly 20 students, the teaching is a challenge.

“Honestly, it gives me a whole new respect for elementary school teachers,” she said.

Ho’s class of rising fourth-graders was assigned to build “gravity cruisers,” small cars that move as if on their own, thanks to the force of a small weight. After reviewing with her students the role that each of them would play in the construction of the cruiser — testing engineer, facilities engineer, consulting engineer, or project engineer — Ho casually transitioned the lesson into the future tense.

“What kind of engineers can you be in real life?” Ho asked them. “What kind of engineer am I?”

“You’re a chemical engineer,” volunteered one student.

“And what kind of engineer is Ms. Alyssa?” Ho asked, pointing to a fellow mentor, Alyssa Kaspersen.

“She’s a civil engineer!”

Ho quickly quizzed the students on what kinds of work different kinds of engineers do — civil engineers work with buildings and roads, mechanical engineers help design machines, and so forth.

“And Eddie,” she said, turning to the student sitting to her left. “What can chemical engineers do that you really like?”

Eddie grinned. “Blow stuff up.”

Explosions and solar cars may spark students’ interest in engineering now, but the real challenge will perhaps be sustaining it. Surveys suggest that while almost a third of students profess a desire to pursue a STEM-related career at the start of high school, more than half of those students will lose interest by the time they graduate. CH2M Hill has committed to funding the program for the next three years, and SEEK officials say the hope is to have students return summer after summer to cement their interest over the long term.

Steavian Sampson, the Denver program’s director and an electrical and computer engineering student at the New York Institute of Technology, said he believes that will reap benefits.

“They might not see it now, but when they get to college, having the strong base in these subjects will really pay off,” Sampson said. “We’re short of engineers, so filling this pipeline is crucial.”

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