Metro Atlanta students learning STEM to help themselves and others

About two dozen metro Atlanta public school students are spending much of their summer vacation on a college campus learning skills their instructors and organizers believe will help them improve academically and help others.

The students are the first local participants in a five-week science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) camp at Morehouse College that includes a social justice component. Organizers said the camp’s goal is to get the students, all rising tenth-graders, to begin thinking about solutions to problems impacting under-served communities.

For example, some students have to use math and science principles to create a plan by the end of the camp that includes a website to address how to combat a disease outbreak.

“It’s not enough to be a good scientist,” explained Brian Garrett, site director for the program, called SMASH Morehouse. “It has to impact others or it’s for naught.”

More schools nationwide, primarily on the college level, are including social justice in their curriculum. Some see it as a way to attract more minority students in STEM classes since smaller percentages of those students are in those courses. Some conservatives have derided social- justice learning as an attempt to infuse liberal bias in education.

SMASH began more than a decade ago at the University of California, Berkeley to help low-income, minority students aspiring to become the first in their family to attend college. This is the first year it’s been expanded outside that state. Organizers recognized they had trouble retaining African-American male students in the program and began discussions more than three years ago with some Morehouse educators about bringing the program here. Morehouse, near downtown Atlanta, is the nation’s only all-male college with a mission of educating African-American men.

The key, both sides agreed, was it had to include a social-justice element.

“We wanted to be more intentional about how we leave a footprint in the community,” said Morehouse’s psychology department chairman David Wall Rice.

The students — all male and mostly African-American — attend schools in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. They were selected through a process that included having them propose how they would solve a problem in their community using STEM, and a math assessment. They also had to be eligible for free or reduced-price meals at their schools. The camp, funded by grants, partnerships and private donors, gives the students a college experience by having them live on campus. Organizers hope to have the students return the following two summers. They also plan to recruit a new class of scholars next year.

Here, the students are learning how to code and the impact of sexually transmitted diseases in metro Atlanta, which has among the highest rates in the nation, according to federal data.

Koren Mayson, one of the students in the camp, was initially skeptical he would learn much. Mayson, 15, a student at Elite Scholars Academy in Clayton County, now said his perception was wrong. Mayson, who wants to study architectural engineering, wants to design properties that can improve his hometown of Morrow.

“It’s opening my eyes to learning how you can help other people in the community,” he said.

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