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STEM program motivates Pittsburgh students to dream big

Jamie Martines
| Saturday, July 22, 2017, 1:15 p.m.
SEEK Mentor Darius Williams, a rising junior and information science major at the University of Maryland College Park, advises campers as they complete their gravity cruiser project.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
SEEK Mentor Darius Williams, a rising junior and information science major at the University of Maryland College Park, advises campers as they complete their gravity cruiser project.
Rising sixth grader and SEEK camper Niomi Rainey, left, gives directions to teammates as fellow camper, Tyrone Gault, also a rising sixth grader, works on the team's project.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Rising sixth grader and SEEK camper Niomi Rainey, left, gives directions to teammates as fellow camper, Tyrone Gault, also a rising sixth grader, works on the team's project.
Third grader Kendall Lee, left, and fellow camper Gabe Robinson, right, put the finishing touches on their team's gravity cruiser project.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Third grader Kendall Lee, left, and fellow camper Gabe Robinson, right, put the finishing touches on their team's gravity cruiser project.
Niomi Rainey, a rising sixth grader and SEEK camper, arranges cardboard cutouts against a tri-fold board.
Jamie Martines| Tribune-Review
Niomi Rainey, a rising sixth grader and SEEK camper, arranges cardboard cutouts against a tri-fold board.

Niomi Rainey wants to be an actress, or maybe a singer. If that doesn't work out, the rising sixth grader might become a writer, citing Shakespeare as her inspiration.

“There's thousands of jobs that kids don't even know exist yet,” Rainey, 12, said while taking a break from arranging cardboard cutouts against a tri-fold board. The set-up will soon be a staging area to exhibit her team's “gravity cruiser” — a spaceship-like gadget Rainey and her fellow campers learned to build from scratch.

“Having your own imagination to make stuff — it's cool to share that with other people,” she said.

Rainey attended the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK) program, held for the first time in Pittsburgh this month. The program was established by the National Society of Black Engineers with the mission of increasing minority students' exposure to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Campers learn to build toys and structures that help reinforce science concepts like gravity and force. Each project also includes an artistic element. Students must make their projects look good while enhancing the functional design. Each week concludes with competitions and oral presentations.

But the skills students learn go beyond engineering projects, according to camp leaders. In addition to learning the mechanics of building toys like the gravity cruiser, campers build relationships with mentors in STEM fields who serve as role models. They also practice skills like teamwork and communication.

“It exposes them to another way of thinking,” said Jasmine Ayers, a mentor at SEEK Pittsburgh this summer, as well as a business owner and teacher in the Houston Independent School District in Texas.

“You can do so much with engineering, or even just the engineering process alone,” she added, explaining that the projects students complete over the three-week camp help them learn to break down a problem and solve it.

Since it was established in 2007, the program has expanded to 15 sites in 14 U.S. cities.

Most of the 75 third through fifth graders who attended the free local camp, housed at the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School, are from Pittsburgh, according to camp site directors Isaiah Prater and Osatohanmwen Ashley Uzamere.

“If we don't encourage our youth or take time to let the youth know, ‘we're here for you,' they won't do it for future youth,” said Prater, a rising senior at Louisiana Tech University majoring in aviation management.

He's been with the SEEK program for several years, starting as a mentor at a New Orleans site when his younger brother was a camper in third grade.

Prater said that watching the impact the camp had on his brother, who is now in ninth grade, convinced him that this experience is important.

“It actually does give kids a better role model to see,” Prater said.

Uzamere, a master's student studying global health at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., agreed. She said the program exposes students to careers in fields that they might not have considered or even heard of before.

“It gives inner-city youth a completely different perspective on what they can achieve,” Uzamere said.

Of the over three million engineering jobs in the United States, about 5.6 percent are held by black engineers, according to 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 11.6 percent are Asian, and 8.8 percent are Hispanic.

Women hold about 14.2 percent of those positions.

According to data from the American Society for Engineering Education and the National Society of Black Engineers, 3,864 black students graduated with bachelor's degrees in engineering in 2015. That's about 4 percent of the total number of engineering bachelor's degrees awarded nationwide in 2015.

By 2025, the National Society of Black Engineers hopes that number of graduates from engineering and STEM-related fields will be closer to 10,000.

Matthew Nelson, chairman of the National Society of Black Engineers, said the SEEK program is important because it gives students who may not be encouraged to dream big exposure to an environment that allows them to be creative.

“We want these young minds to be challenged, and to understand that they have control over their own lives,” Nelson said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867, jmartines@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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