Black Engineers Raise STEM Awareness

Black engineers hope to bring more people in STEM

As the college fair at the Mitchell Community Center wrapped up on Saturday afternoon, 11-year-old Theodis Cunningham was proud that he had not missed a table, reporting The Commercial Appeal.

“I got something from everybody here,” said Theodis, a student at Georgian Hills Elementary, displaying pockets stuffed with ink pens, a flashlight and other gadgets sporting college logos.

Still years away from college, Theodis, attended the fair with church members, Courtney Smith, 14, Dennis Rogers, 13 and Jamesha Walker, 15 . They all left the fair, hosted Memphis Professional Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, inspired.

The  college fair was one part of a targeted NSBE goal to significantly increase their ranks and expose young African-Americans to the possibilities a STEM-based career can offer.

NSBE has a goal of graduating 10,000 engineers by 2025, a number now at about 3,500 , said Trenika Madden, president of the local chapter and a biomedical engineer with Abbott Laboratories.

But with 13 percent of African-American eighth-graders proficient in math, compared to a national average of 33 percent, the numbers are not good, Madden said.

So they’re focused on finding, supporting and mentoring students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) from middle school to high school to college.

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“There are a lot of students who don’t know. They don’t know anyone who’s an engineer. They don’t know a black engineer. That’s why we say exposure is the first step. They start to hear about it, they start to see that this is actually possible for me because there’s someone that looks like me that’s doing it,” Madden said.

It’s what happened to NSBE public relations chairman, James Williams, who was himself grabbed by a NSBE member while a student at Whitehaven High School.

“When you see something positive, you want to be that. Part of what we’re also trying to do is say to kids, you can be an engineer too, even though you might not see it everyday, there are people out there who have achieved that,” said Williams, a project engineer with Smith & Nephew.

The engineers began to the morning with the Walk for Education, walking the area near Mitchell High School, knocking on doors and distributing information on college, scholarships, SAT/ACT prep and their organization.

During the afternoon college fair students and parents were able to talk with college representatives and engineering professionals.

Attendees also got real-world advice from speaker John Jackson, vice president of strategy, planning, engineering, innovation and customer identity with FedEx.

As the middle school and high school students reeled off for him all the gadgets and devices they use every day, Jackson pointed out to them,that engineers are responsible for every one.

Jackson stressed the importance of hard work.

“Do your work. Don’t let anybody out work you. Don’t ever be ashamed of knowing the right answers,” Jackson said.

And “always stay on your game,” he said.

“Doors open when you prepare yourself,” Jackson said.

The crew with Theodis, from Gospel Temple Missionary Baptist, left the fair pumped and ready to for the challenge.

“I’m already in STEM,” said Courtney, who has attended STEM camp, built a robot and plays violin.

“I want to be a pediatrician, but if that doesn’t work out, then I’m just going to do biomedical engineering,” said Jameshia, who has also has a robot under her belt.

Their strong academics, willingness to work is why church member Louise Carney, was happy to act as the chauffeur.

“I have watched them grow up and it’s kind of like an investment that I think we need to make in our young people,” Carney said. “They have something to offer. They too can give back and will be able to build a profession to do it.”

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