Bed-Stuy kids move to front of class with pilot engineering program

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Instructor Alastair Forde give pointers to Asili Johnson on her glider design.

By Nico Simino

Following the success of a 2012 summer pilot program, kids in Bed-Stuy will now have a place to not only have fun, but learn and improve their math and science skills, following in sync with the national push for more science and technology educational programs.

The educational program, called Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK), is run through a partnership between the local nonprofit organization, the Magnolia Tree Earth Center (MTEC), and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

Founded by Hattie Carthan in 1972, MTEC is located at 677 Lafayette Avenue and is built around the only living landmark in New York City, a magnolia tree that sits outside of their office. The environmental organization works within the Bed-Stuy community, and has for more than 20 years planted gardens in vacant lots with an extended mission to educate the community about the environment and to be good, healthy, contributing citizens.

SEEK was established to help solve the problem of underrepresentation of African-American students in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. The three-week program is a STEM pipeline.
“The purpose of the program is to provide a hands-on experience for middle school students,” said MTEC Executive Director Beverly Johnson. “We want to provide them with a free place to learn, hands-on, about math, science and engineering.”

The program is designed to expose African-American children to STEM fields as early as the third grade. In addition, the exposure is provided by utilizing NSBE members, who are college students majoring in STEM fields.

“It [the pilot program] was definitely a success this year, the students did amazingly well,” said Johnson. “This program has never been attempted in NY state and we wanted to test it first to make sure everything would go right with parent participation, among other things.”

“[The program] is essential to our community,” said Lavasia Peterson, Branch Manager and Vice President of the Caesars Bay TD Bank in Gravesend who helped Magnolia receive grants for the program. “It is so different from the normal programs I’ve seen run in the past.”

The SEEK pilot program had 20 kids this summer, but plans on expanding it to 300 by next summer. For the rest of the year, MTEC will provide tutors to help young students with STEM-oriented subjects. Most of the tutors are from the Bed-Stuy area and even include some high school students.

“The SEEK program is an important thing to have, especially for our community,” said William Suggs, Regional Director for the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

There is no prerequisite test to join the program. During the three-week program, campers were tested on basic vocabulary, science and math skills once after they joined and then again at the end of the program.
The SEEK program utilizes a hands-on design curriculum developed by SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers). The campers worked in teams using the skills they learned to complete a project at the end of each week, culminating with a presentation and design competition for parents.

The first week campers built a Glider, the second week they built a Gravity Cruiser, and the last week they built a jet toy.

“Parents and funders have been asking us to expand it beyond three weeks after our success this summer. My long-term goal is to have a SEEK camp in each borough. But we need more financial support,” said Johnson. “The program is free, but is on a first-come first-serve basis. The early bird gets the worm.”
“[SEEK] is terrific and educational, it makes you want to learn,” said Islam McDowell, 10, a student who participated in this year’s pilot program. “I loved it, if there’s one thing I learned is that there is no ‘I’ in team, you need teamwork. I want to go back next year!”

“I thought the program was needed, especially for our young black youth,” said Abu Bakr Abbus-Salam, Islam’s father. “They need to know about all of this new technology and science, it’s important that these kids get started when they are young.”

MTEC programs include workshops, community service projects, tours, career-awareness services and worker training. The organization also has an art gallery that exhibits environmentally themed artwork.
MTEC also partners with local schools in the Bed-Stuy area, including: Excellence Boys Charter School, George H. Murray Prep Academy, I.S. 318, Leadership Prep Bedford-Stuyvesant, P.S. 3, Bedford Village School, P.S. 11 and P.S. 308.