For black high school students,
UW-Madison engineers make science fun
Tim’s sole purpose in life is to descend a hill and drop a small beanbag through a hole. A small gray-and-orange LEGO robot, Tim is the product of months of enthusiastic work and fund-raising by members of the first-ever National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) junior chapter at Madison East High School.
From March 19-23, East High applied technology instructor Richard Lyons led the group—with Tim—on an excursion to Orlando, Florida. There, NSBE Jr. members competed against 24 other high school teams in the NSBE Engineering Design Competition. Tim emerged victorious in the robot race and took second overall in the competition, which judged teams based on a technical presentation and paper, in addition to the race.
A national organization, NSBE aims to increase the number of black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally, and positively affect the community. At Madison East, the NSBE Jr. chapter exists because of a UW-Madison industrial and systems engineering student and her dedication to reaching out to younger students.
In October 2007, UW-Madison’s Mitchelle Lyle contacted East High to jump-start the area’s first NSBE Jr. chapter. UW-Madison NSBE members and members of the Wisconsin Black Engineering Student Society have tutored and given presentations at East for the past five years. Lyle was head of the NSBE pre-college initiative committee, which reaches out to local high schools and forms partnerships that encourage students to attend college—especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines.
East High was eager to accept Lyle’s suggestion to take the next step and form a junior chapter, says Cynthia Chin, the East High math teacher who advises the NSBE Jr. chapter. “With limited time and resources available in our building, community partnerships are always welcome,” she says.
The high school students benefit from mentoring and encouragement in STEM disciplines, says Chin. “It is not uncommon for students of color to feel isolated in advanced courses within these disciplines,” she says. “The NSBE experience enlarges their peer group dramatically and plays a role in their looking forward to college.”
Andrew Goldsby is one of 15 East High NSBE Jr. members. A junior who hopes to study electrical engineering at UW-Madison, Goldsby first learned about NSBE on a fall tour of the UW-Madison College of Engineering campus.
The campus tour impressed him, and when he discovered that NSBE offers scholarships and free tutoring, he joined. Shortly after, Goldsby became president of the NSBE Jr. chapter.
Working on the robot Tim taught Goldsby one key to successful engineering projects: organization, organization and more organization. “The competition increased our ability to work smoothly and productively with other people,” he says.
The Engineering Design Competition is one of many ways in which NSBE Jr. offers the East High students a fun look at engineering. Periodically, NSBE Jr. and UW-Madison NSBE members also participate together in activities such as laser tag or the Milwaukee Walk for Education. “We want to boost their confidence,” Lyle says. “This isn’t just a nerdy thing. Engineering can be fun.”
That face-time with positive college role models is what sets NSBE Jr. apart from other math and science clubs at East. “It offers leadership and one-on-one ongoing mentorship by college students—and focuses activities around career fields that are not necessarily addressed by other clubs,” NSBE Jr. advisor Chin says. “By virtue of its mission, NSBE allows and encourages students of color to present and assert themselves in places and in ways that may be new for them. This educates everyone about opportunities and possibilities.”
UW-Madison NSBE member Lyle is dedicated to her pre-college initiative committee because she remembers the effect high school science programs had on her. She says the junior chapter enables the UW-Madison NSBE members to give back in a way that recognizes the people and programs that positively affected their college choices. “I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without that help and support,” she says of her experiences with a science and math program hosted by Marquette University. “I believe that without the program, I wouldn’t have bothered to look at engineering.”
NSBE Jr. promises to offer East High students similar exposure to the STEM fields and college life. East student Goldsby says a presentation by UW-Madison chapter members on the college admissions process was eye-opening. In particular, he felt it was important because the advice came directly from a college student.
Chin has high hopes for the junior chapter’s future. “Everything has moved quite quickly this year and there are many opportunities offered by the NSBE national organization,” she says.
There are plans for NSBE Jr. students to become regular participants in the regional conferences and competitions, as well as to form industry partnerships so they can tour technology firms.
Chin views NSBE Jr. as a way to promote enrollment in some of the new engineering courses available at East. Even more importantly, she says, the chapter can reach students beyond those who are directly involved. “The existence of NSBE Jr. at our school and the visits by collegiate members also reinforce the message to our entire staff and student body that math, science and technology are for all people,” she says.