New program engineers a pipeline into STEM fields

SEEK photo1_edited-2

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.

The gravity cruiser competition
The gravity cruiser competition

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.”

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.