June 25, 2014
Some outreach-minded folk in chemical engineering have begun a new after-school program, the St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy, hoping to make a difference in the lives of underrepresented minority boys. While programs providing hands-on STEM activities happen fairly frequently at Booker T. Washington STEM Academy (BTW) in Champaign, Illinois, what sets this program apart is its emphasis on minority role models— including the boys’ own fathers.
This unique aspect—the idea of involving fathers—came from a program Dr. Jerrod Henderson, a lecturer in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, and Ricky Greer, a specialist in K–12 education, recently created then piloted at the Don Moyer’s Girls’ and Boys’ Club in Champaign.
Regarding the fathers’ involvement: “It had a great impact on the kids and their excitement,” recalls Greer, “and we really enjoyed seeing the fathers get down on their hands and knees and work on the projects with their sons.”
The St. Elmo Brady STEM Academy will run for eight weeks with three sessions a week—one intentionally held on Saturday so the boys’ fathers can attend.
However, while involving fathers is an important aspect, for some young participants, the father might not be in the picture; the second program component involves recruiting Illinois graduate and undergraduate students to mentor the young participants.
The third member of the team, Allante Whitmore, a Ph.D. student in Agricultural & Biological Engineering, indicates that student mentors will also serve as role models to demonstrate that, “Hey, I’m going to college. You can do it too.”
Mentoring was included so each team member could look back and see how important certain people were in helping them get to where they are today.
A third way the program will incorporate role models is during the activities. While addressing a different topic each week, the team will showcase a multicultural scientist who has contributed to that area, such as the program’s namesake, St. Elmo Brady. This emphasis on African-American scientists who paved the way was added because of the positive role models they can be for students of color.To ensure the program’s success, the program is targeting 4th and 5th grade underrepresented males who are interested in STEM, hoping to get them interested in STEM early.
While the three hope to lure some young men into the STEM pipeline, they admit that one reason they’re doing the program is they just plain love teaching.
Henderson admits that he’s always wanted to teach: “From early on, I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. So I had mentors in my life that pushed me towards, ‘Well, if you want to teach, this is what you’re going to have to do. It was always those mentors that had an outreach component to what they were doing.'”
So like the mentors who helped him, Henderson wants to lend a hand to some youngsters in this community:
“In my community, in the colleges where I attended, that’s the culture. You give back to your community, and I was raised with that. You don’t think twice about it. That’s what you’re supposed to do; you reach back and you help others.”
The team’s personal goals for the program are varied. Greer wants to reach out to young African-American males: “You just have to work, and be that mentor, and show them that it is possible to be successful…And again just having a passion for the community and wanting to uplift the community.”
“I want to expose these young people to STEM,” says Henderson. “But beyond STEM…whatever career path they choose, I feel that they are going to look back and say, ‘I remember when I was in this program, and these people really helped to push me and encourage me.’ And it’ll go a long way. I’m just a proponent of exposure.”
Henderson goes on to share how some of the things he was exposed to as a youngster influenced his becoming a chemical engineer:
“I always liked science, for some reason,” he confesses. Maybe it’s because as early as 6th or 7th grade, he was going to engineering conferences. Leaders of his community’s mentoring program said, ‘We’re going to give these kids something to do!’ So they took him and other kids to college open houses and football games—even the Black Engineer of the Year Awards.
Henderson envisions a scenario in which his mentoring program might have that same kind of influence in these youngsters’ lives: “While we might expose them to STEM, they might also get the chance to travel to these conferences that we have talked about. And all of it came about because they were part of a STEM program.”
Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.