Engineering camp starts wheels turning for African-American girls

A dozen African-American girls build a gravity cruiser, a small car-like machine, on the floor at Ivy Preparatory Academy in Atlanta.

The cruiser uses the power generated by a weighted plastic lever as it settles toward the floor, to drive the wheels and move the car without batteries. But it doesn’t roll well.

“Perhaps we need more load,” 11-year Makenzie Tucker suggests. She adds extra weight — some coins — into the end of the white plastic tube that acts as the lever.

Makenzie found out about Summer Engineering Experience for Kids, or SEEK, from her cousin who majored in engineering at college.

“I want to be an engineer too. I love creating things,” she said.

SEEK teaches engineering not only though building workshops, but also through art and fun activities. Another group of teens write a script about a mission to the moon and paint decorations for their upcoming performance. Meanwhile, five students gather around another gravity cruiser with green sticky notes in hands. They pretend to be customers and sales assistants at a toy store: sales people explain to the customers the construction of the machine, using technical terms: “Here are the lever, axle, chassis.”

“This camp makes engineering fun. At school, we learn similar stuff, but not in the same way. The school teacher never lets us go this far,” one said.

The Ivy Prep program is the only SEEK program in Atlanta and one of 16 in the United States.

The National Society of Black Engineers, concerned with the lack of African-Americans in engineering and sciences, created the program for boys and girls. According to a 2003 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 5 percent of master’s degrees and 2 percent of doctoral degrees are awarded to African-Americans in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines. The society hopes to graduate 10,000 black engineers with bachelor’s degrees by 2025, which will be a nearly threefold increase over the 2014 total.

“A lot of black students are long away from engineering because they’re scared of math. Some of them have low self-esteem — they just believe that they can’t do it. Some African-American families are low-income and can’t afford to engage children in extracurricular activities, boosting interest in” STEM fields, said Salange Embaneg Afise, a mentor in the program

She moved to the U.S. from Cameroon and became the first black woman to graduate from Jackson State University with a master’s degree in biostatistics.

The Atlanta camp at Ivy Prep takes in girls from third to fifth grade for free. This summer, about 150 kids are attending. Parents bring them from different neighborhoods, from Kirkwood to Lawrenceville, for the program. Twenty-three mentors, from high school students to college graduates, help.

“Each week, students work with a different machine and try different activities. Every Friday they have a competition which is usually visited by parents and sponsors,” SEEK Atlanta Operations site director Tichina Tigner explained.

Tigner, 24, joined SEEK as a mentor in 2015. Apart from the job at the camp, she teaches at the Middle Ridge Elementary School in Covington. She’s just finished a master’s thesis on early childhood education.

“I love kids, SEEK is a continuation of my teaching career. It just keeps me busy. I don’t want to be at home in June, doing nothing,” Tigner said.

SEEK will open registration for next summer’s program in January.

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