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Providing Students the Tools to Excel

Providing Students the Tools to ExcelPre-college program places students on the path to careers in math, science and engineering By Tenisha Mercer DETROIT
Kenneth Hill couldn’t believe what he was hearing. While at an educational conference in Washington in 1976, Hill found himself at the center of a raging debate about whether math, science and engineering were too hard for African Americans.
“I knew it wasn’t true,” says Hill, who had taught physics and calculus to seventh-graders in a boarding school in Zambia. “I already knew we could excel in math, science and engineering. It didn’t make any sense to me. We were the first scientists and engineers. How could we not be scientists and engineers now? I knew that given the opportunity, our youngsters here could excel just as well as anywhere else.”
Hill, who has a bachelor’s in civil engineering and a master’s in mathematics, planned to get his doctorate in math at the University of Michigan. But he soon found himself bent on proving naysayers wrong and became executive director of a pilot initiative, the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP), which seeks to expose more Black youth, as well as other minorities, to careers in math, science and engineering.
Now, 26 years later, Hill is still proving naysayers wrong. What began with a $250,000 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant to teach seventh-graders math, science and engineering has mushroomed into an initiative to train 10,000 K-12 students annually. The program is funded by the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit and the Detroit Board of Education. It is also funded by foundations and 18 corporations, who helped to raise more than $7 million during a fund-raising campaign in 2000. Its annual operating budget is $4 million.
“We’re seeing kids who have been in the program five to seven years going to engineering school who are self-confident, grounded academically, and who can complete science and academic careers,” Hill says.
Most DAPCEP alumni go on to attend local colleges and universities such as the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University and Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) in Flint, Mich., followed by historically Black colleges and universities such as Howard, Hampton and Morehouse.
Gerard White, 40, was a student in the first DAPCEP program in 1976. White is now an auto designer at MSX International, an auto supplier based in Troy, Mich.
“DAPCEP gave me direction,” says White, who has crisscrossed the globe, living in such countries as Germany, Korea, Italy and France, and has worked on international assignments for Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler.
“I was interested in science and math, but I didn’t have a path to direct that in the proper manner. I had some skills, but I didn’t know where to direct those skills. My science teacher always encouraged me, but I didn’t know any engineers and my idea of an engineer was a guy on the back of a train,” he adds.
Engineers, scientists and mathematicians — professions students may never even have known about before — help mentor students in the program. 
“Exposure is a key part of the program,” board member Raymond Gregory says. “A lot of kids (need that), especially in the inner-city, it’s not like you have an engineer living down the street from you.”
Programs such as DAPCEP expose minorities to the possibilities of a lucrative, high-paying job in engineering, math and science, says Dr. Milton Robinson, a consultant to the president of Kettering University, and a SECME Inc. representative. SECME is a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta that works with business, industry and schools in 17 states to increase the number of minorities in engineering, math, science and technology.
Kettering recruits five DAPCEP students each year to attend a six-week, pre-college engineering program during the summer.
DAPCEP features a rigorous curriculum meant to challenge students. Students select from among a variety of courses, such as computer-aided design and drafting, Internet application design, civil engineering, 3-D geometry and robotics.
There are 7,500 students who take part in more than 225 classes that meet from 9 a.m. to noon each Saturday.  Another 2,500 students participate in summer courses and in-school programs, which include pre-engineering after-school classes at public schools in Detroit.
But it isn’t the math, science and engineering classes that drive DAPCEP. It’s the recognition that African American children can excel in technology, and those same beliefs are instilled in students.
“When you look at our community and if I mention a basketball player or a gospel star, there’s no mystery there because the infrastructure is there to develop those careers,” Hill says. “We said if you put in the infrastructure for technology careers, let’s see what happens. Let’s create that same environment for math, science and engineering as there is in our community for music and sports.”
It worked.
Students in the program have won the National Society of Black Engineers’ Golden Torch award that recognizes excellence in math and science among young people nationwide every year since 1998. Two years ago, the National Association of Minority Engineering Program Administrators named DAPCEP the Pre-College Engineering Program of the Year.
And students have learned that it’s cool to do well in math, science and engineering.
“There is a mechanism to explore math and science and not feel they’re odd because there are a lot of other youth who are interested in it, too,” Hill says. “They can be whatever during the week, but they’re scientists on Saturdays, after school and during the summer.”
That’s what drew Garlin Gilchrist II to the program.
Gilchrist says if it wasn’t for DAPCEP, he probably wouldn’t be studying computer science at the University of Michigan.
“My whole life would have been different. DAPCEP opened up doors to school and contacts. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have had the pre-engineering classes I needed to come to Michigan and be prepared.
“Any type of stereotype, that was mitigated by DAPCEP,” says Gilchrist. “We all knew we were smart and it didn’t bother us.”
DAPCEP also created something organizers   didn’t expect: a network for students, who forged close friendships with classmates. Nearly all of the students are African American.
“It was a good way to meet a lot of friends,” says Gilchrist, who lives in a Detroit suburb and keeps in close contact with his DAPCEP classmates. “It brought us close together, and we were able to socialize.”
 His mother, Brenda Gilchrist, agrees.
“The social component was even more important than the educational component,” she says. “My son was in a suburban school and he could mix and mingle with kids in his own culture, and at DAPCEP he was like everyone else. It allowed him to (meet) people he otherwise wouldn’t have, and his friends were smart, just like he was. It was okay for them to be smart and brilliant and they could still have fun and feel good about themselves.”
Board member Gregory’s 15-year-old daughter Denita probably wouldn’t have known anything about biomedical engineering if it weren’t for a DAPCEP summer camp at a local university.
“I knew about doctors, but not biomedical engineers,” she says. Denita has completed biomedical experiments and worked with biomedical engineers as part of the camp so it’s no surprise she wants to become a biomedical engineer.
 The University of Michigan is one of 11 colleges and universities in the state that the organization partners with. The nonprofit initiative also has attracted support from a number of corporate sponsors, including Ford, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors and EDS. Ford Motor Co. donates $300,000 to the program each year.
“It’s important that there is a diversity of thought and DAPCEP provides that,” says Steve Lewis, director of strategic planning, manufacturing operations at Ford, and DAPCEP president. “When you come from a challenged background, you bring different experiences, skills and perspective to solving problems.”STRENGTHENING CURRICULUMS
DAPCEP works, organizers say, because it ingrains math and science in students at an early age. Most of its resources are centered on students in primary and middle school in  80 public schools in Detroit.
Even so, Hill says math and science courses in schools aren’t adequate. How can there be future engineers and scientists if they have trouble mastering basic algebra and calculus, Hill asks.
“At this point, we don’t see, overall, public school systems competitive in math and science,” Hill says. “Youngsters still aren’t getting the exposure to those subjects. If we supplement what youngsters get in class with additional classes on Saturdays, in school and during the summer, they will be competitive.”
However, that was a radical idea when DAPCEP first began. So, organizers decided to make parental involvement a key element. As a result, a parent advisory committee now guides the program. Many DAPCEP alumni, whose children now participate, serve on the organization’s board of directors.
Yet, despite DAPCEP’s victories, Hill still finds himself battling old attitudes and misconceptions.
The biggest challenge is convincing youngsters that they can be good in math and science.
“A lot of (our own) people internalize the position that our kids can’t excel in these fields, and our youngsters have internalized that,” he says. “We actually believe we can’t do certain things.”
That’s why two years ago DAPCEP began working with students as young as kindergarten as part of their effort to reach even younger students. 
Hill, meanwhile, wants to duplicate DAPCEP in cities around the country. He would also like to reach 50,000 students annually and increase the annual budget from $4 million to $25 million.
“This economy is driven by technology,” Hill says. “I want for our youngsters to be a part of the 21st century. We have to be a part of the technology base. There is a great need for programs like these.”
For more information on DAPCEP, visit <>. 

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