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Bridge-building no metaphor at engineering-themed high school

Many schools have summer “bridge” programs to bring new students up to speed. City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture, and Technology has ninth-graders build actual bridges.

The two-year-old school’s summer orientation program includes a bridge-building competition where incoming freshmen can showcase their newly acquired engineering skills.

The orientation kicks off an intensive program that condenses all of high school plus a taste of college into three years. That’s a steep challenge for many students at the Downtown Brooklyn school, which admits students without considering their grades or test scores. But school officials say about three-quarters of the small school’s first entering class is on track to spend a fourth year studying full-time at the New York City College of Technology, the high school’s partner, free of charge.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott attended this year’s competition today, offering congratulations and consolations as students pushed their popsicle-stick bridges to the breaking point. Tension mounted as students, teachers, and supporters watched to see whether any bridges would bear more than last year’s record 109 pounds.

One bridge did: The winning team, Building Fanatics, loaded 114 pounds of geometry textbooks onto their structure before it collapsed. Stephon Stevens, a ninth-grader who came to City Poly from Explore Charter School, said the team guessed that moving popsicle sticks from the bottom to the top of the bridge design would make it stronger.

Four of every five students at City Poly are boys, in keeping with a trend that cuts across many of the city’s career and technical education schools.

Wearing a red T-shirt from the robotics team at PS 11, where she went to elementary school, Ikiya Devonish said she is passionate about engineering but knows most girls her age are not.

“I think most girls want to go to schools for art or dance, for singing. They want to go to LaGuardia,” she said, referring to the city’s most selective arts high schools. “They think engineering is a boy thing.”

Poly City wants to recruit more female students and offers special programs and mentoring opportunities for the girls who do enroll, said Marie Segares, the early college liaison between the school and City Tech. She said the school recruited women instructors from City Tech to establish female role models from the school’s first days.

But often, when girls do show an interest in enrolling, she said, their parents learn about the gender balance and steer them away.

And when they do enroll, some female students said they feel an extra burden to do well in their classes. When students undertook a substantial bridge-building project last year, teachers said, female students became project managers in many groups. They noted that the student body president and vice president both were women last year.

“They think all girls are the same,” Hira Babar said about her male classmates. “You really have to show yourself.”

The payoff is significant, said Averie Mark, a 10th grader who enrolled at City Poly because her grandfather was a civil engineer. Today, Mark compiled a spreadsheet that calculated each bridge-building team’s performance data.

“It makes me feel like I have more power,” she said about being a woman enrolled in a mostly-male school. “I have to show them, by charging forth and doing what I want to do.”

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