By Stephen Witt
The excitement of invention and learning new concepts filled the P.S. 5 Dr. Ronald McNair Elementary School last Saturday as the Summer Engineering for Kids (SEEK) program, culminated with 300 third- to fifth-graders from throughout Central Brooklyn, presented the solar-powered cars, gravity cruisers and model glider airplanes as they made and competed to see which ones functioned the best.
The national program, which Bed-Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center piloted last summer in Brooklyn with 20 students, is part of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) initiative to encourage African-American youth to enter the field of engineering.
The free three-week program, led by NSBE engineering students and technical professionals from across the country, utilized a hands-on design curriculum developed by SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers). The student participants worked in teams using their knowledge to solve problems and create products while discovering the underlying math and science principles involved in the processes.
“I don’t know how to express my joy of what this program did in the last three weeks, “ said Bed-Stuy resident Patrika Wellington, whose eight-year-old grandson, Eric Frias, participated in the program. “He (Eric) really got into it. Every week he had to learn ten vocabulary words and their meaning such as aerodynamics, and he was acing these words he never saw before.”
Also in attendance at the event were top educators and civic leaders such as legendary African-American educator and New York State Education Department Board of Regents member Dr. Lester Young, who noted there is a crisis in New York for male children of color where only 12 percent meet the state standard of education going into ninth grade.
“If youngsters go into the ninth grade like this many will never see the 11th grade,” he said, adding the answer is programs like SEEK that engages kids at the elementary school level.
“I don’t know why we can’t have a movement like this where we get mentors in every school,” he said.
McNair Elementary School Principal Lena Scarborough-Gates said the summer program had a big impact on Bed-Stuy in that it demonstrated to the community that these kinds of programs – even in the middle of the summer – can work. She said the city’s Department of Education knew about it and hopes they will both publicize and fund it better in the future.
“A lot of times when positive things happen in the community it goes unnoticed,” she said.
Magnolia Tree Earth Center Executive Director Beverly Johnson suggested the program be launched across the city and not just in the summer.
“When you get students’ interest peeked you can’t just stop,” she said, adding that a lot more funding is needed.
A good part of the program’s success was due to the many student mentors from around the country such as Christina Chisholm from Columbia, South Carolina who is a mechanical engineering major at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I love giving back to my community and to teach them something about engineering because I know when I was a little kid I didn’t even know what engineering was,” said Chisholm.
The real winners in the program, though, were the young students, whose minds were challenged in a fun learning experience.
“My favorite thing was getting the plane to fly and seeing what the problems were and getting it right,” said Darius Wagner, who will be going into the third grade at Excellence Boys School.