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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”