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Striving for Future Success

Through innovative summer camp programs, WPI’s Office of Minority Affairs encourages children to take the first step toward a future career in engineering

Calvin Hill, director of WPI’s Office of Minority Affairs, and Gina Melendez ‘06, research assistant, at WPI’s new OASIS cultural center (Offering Acceptance, Support, and Inclusion to Students).

By Eileen McCluskey, Photography by Patrick O’Connor and Dan Vaillancourt

On a January evening, in the Campus Center Odeum, 20 middle school students and their parents focus intensely on an assignment. Individually, they puzzle over an illustration showing four boxes; each box contains nine dots. Gina Melendez ’06, research assistant in WPI’s Office of Minority Affairs, instructs everyone to make a design by connecting the dots. Brows furrow as the group hunkers down.

“Time’s up,” Melendez calls out a short time later. She asks for volunteers to show the group their creations. Three kids and one adult head for a flip chart to draw triangles, rectangles, and squares within the confines of each box.

“Here’s another design idea,” Melendez offers, as she draws sweeping lines that burst through the frames of the boxes and dive back in. “Did anyone besides me connect their dots by going outside the box?”

No one had. Why?

“Solid lines mean stay inside,” one child suggests.

“Not with engineering,” Melendez answers. “In engineering, there’s no such thing as the box.” Seeing puzzled expressions, she explains, “We start with all our ideas, not just the obvious or the ones that seem correct. There’s no right answer, only possible solutions.”

Engineering a youthful interest

Welcome to Step into Strive Jr., an eight-workshop series designed by the Office of Minority Affairs to generate excitement and pump up enrollment in WPI’s summer day camp, Strive Jr. The weeklong program brings African-American, Latino, and Native American students from Worcester public middle schools to campus to experience engineering’s diverse disciplines by designing flying cars, spaceships, or new cosmetics.

Strive Jr. morphs into Strive, a summer residential camp for high school students that takes them deeper into the sciences by letting them hit the labs to test water quality, build robots that respond to sound, and explore how to make artificial skin.

“Our summer programs increase the likelihood that Worcester’s minorities will set their sights on—and begin preparing for—an engineering, math, or science career,” says Calvin Hill, director of the Office of Minority Affairs. “With the Strive programs, we aim to nurture engineering’s most under-represented minorities, spending more and more time with them as they grow older, so they’ll one day matriculate at WPI.”

Building a future

At each “Step into” workshop, a WPI faculty member introduces an engineering discipline with a hands-on exercise. In January, Gretar Tryggvason, head of WPI’s Mechanical Engineering Department, spoke while images of rockets, computers, and airplanes flashed across a large screen. “Mechanical engineers are everywhere,” he told participants. “They work in software companies, car manufacturers, utilities, and the government. When the flying car becomes a reality, mechanical engineers are going to be there.”

For Hill and Melendez, the think-out-of-the-box exercise is a metaphor for the socio-economic box from which they want the children to escape. “For a variety of historical and cultural reasons,” says Hill, “participation in math, science, and engineering in the United States, especially by the populations targeted by our programs, has not reflected the diversity of the nation’s population [see Diversity means overcoming not-so-great expectations]. There is a lack of minority role models in the science and engineering fields and low cultural and familial expectations for attending college.”

Melendez and Hill expect to keep the “Step into” enthusiasm marching through April, when an engineering design competition will give students and parents, working in teams of three or four, the opportunity to design a desk, build a prototype, and make a presentation at an awards dinner. A panel of WPI faculty will select the winning design.

“Our summer programs increase the likelihood that Worcester’s minorities will set their sights on— and begin preparing for— an engineering, math, or science career…so they’ll one day matriculate at WPI.”
—Calvin Hill, director of WPI’s Office of Minority Affairs

Back at the January workshop, Hill and Melendez seem to have achieved their goal: parents and kids are thinking ahead to the summer. One parent, Noemi Mendez, asks about the cost of the program. When she hears $125, she whispers to the person sitting next to her that she’s seen a similar program advertised for $400. “This is a good deal,” she adds, then smiles at her 11-year-old son, Gabriel Navarro. “I’ll definitely send him to this program.” Another parent, Elaine Watson, says that her 11-year-old son, John, “will most definitely come here this summer.

It’s wonderful that WPI is doing this. It shows the kids that there are other things out there and gives them the opportunity to start learning new things while they’re still so young.”

This is exactly what Melendez wants to hear. “I want to help the kids see that they can plan for college,” she says. “And I want the parents to come away from the workshops thinking, ‘Hey, our kids can be engineers.’ ”

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Last modified: Apr 13, 2005, 11:56 EDT
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