Self-Empowerment Youth Program Encourages Future African-American Engineers

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By Stephen Witt

Three hundred of the brightest young African-American minds throughout Central Brooklyn, along with 200 parents, packed the cafeteria/gymnasium at P.S. 5 Dr. Ronald McNair Elementary School in Bed-Stuy last Saturday morning for orientation to a mentoring program that will nurture the next generation of African-American engineers.

The Summer Engineering for Kids (SEEK) program, which Bed-Stuy’s Magnolia Tree Earth Center piloted last summer with 20 third- to fifth-grade students, is part of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) initiative to encourage African-American youth to enter the field of engineering.

“This is our signature literacy program that started in Washington, DC and has now expanded to 10 cities across the nation including Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Jackson, Mississippi, which were added this year,” said Frank O. Moore, director of SEEK.

Moore said NSBE is hoping the program will grow African-Americans entering the engineering program, which he characterized as “dismal”, with only about 3,000 of 80,000 engineering college graduates each year being African-American, and only one in eight being female. Additionally, only 30 percent of African-Americans entering the engineering field at the start of college finish after five years and we want to increase this field, he said.

The free three-week program, led by NSBE engineering students and technical professionals, utilizes a hands-on design curriculum developed by SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers). Campers will work in teams, using their knowledge to solve problems and create products while discovering the underlying math and science principles involved in these processes. Each week, the campers will take on a new project, culminating with a presentation and design competition that all parents are invited to attend.

In Brooklyn, the team projects are the design of three toys – a solar-powered vehicle, a gravity cruiser and a glider plane. The African-American engineering  teachers are from schools across the country and are being housed at the Downtown Brooklyn Long Island University dorms.

“It is very important that young people within the African-American community see young people of color and African-American women entering the field of engineering,” said William Suggs, a Crown Heights resident, Con Ed senior specialist and regional director of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

Suggs noted that the field of energy, which is associated with engineering, has growing career opportunities, and encouraging local youth in this direction prepares them for energy and engineering jobs both nationally and in the growing global marketplace.

And Suggs, like all the organizers, were inspired by the huge turnout on a scorching-hot July Saturday morning.

“They can be doing anything else on a Saturday. Their being here shows that parents are very concerned about their children’s welfare and future.  Their responsibility (as parents) shows right here in making sure their children are here,” said Suggs.

Cheryl Todmann, whose son, Zion, is a third-grader at the Trey Whitfield School in East New York, said she learned about the program from a parent friend.

“My son always excelled in science and math in school and I think this is a great opportunity for my son to learn the nuts and bolts of engineering,” said Todmann, adding her father was an engineer at AT&T for 25 years.

Mark Davis, an exterminator from Brownsville, said he learned about the program through a friend of his wife and immediately signed up his son, Chad, who is an excellent student.

“Math and science is the wave of the future so I think engineering is critical,” said Davis. “We have a lot of problems in the world that need to be solved today and engineers are needed to solve these problems.”

Chad, a fourth-grader at the Achievement First Charter School of Brooklyn, said he enjoys playing video and computer games, but is also interested in how these games are made.

“I like science because it teaches you about a lot of different things. Like the human body is something to one person, but it’s also something scientific,” said the young engineer in the making. “I also like astronomy because you get to see hypernovas, which is when a giant star explodes.”

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