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Fourteen-year-old Cayden Woolery, of Orland Park, spent Saturday working on a project that allowed a miniature toy car to run on salt water.

Nearby, Mehkilei Holmes, 13, of Matteson, tried on a robotic hand made from LEGO items.

They are among 45 Chicago metropolitan area middle and high school-aged students participating in the Pre-Freshman Program in Engineering and Science Saturday Academy at Chicago State University. The goal of the program is “to educate, motivate and expose pre-college minority students to careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math,” program coordinator Marnie Boyd said.

The Burnham resident has pursued that goal for more than 30 years at CSU, where she is assistant director of engineering studies.

Pew Research Center statistics continue to show underrepresentation of minorities in STEM jobs. While blacks make up 11 percent of the U.S. workforce, they represent just 9 percent of STEM workers. For Hispanics, the numbers are worse. They represent 16 percent of the U.S. workforce but only 7 percent of all STEM workers, according to Pew.

The CSU program, referred to as PREP, operates in the summer and during the academic school year. It includes educational, motivational and recreational activities and national competitions. Participants also attend the National Society of Black Engineers national convention.

“It’s theory and hands-on,” Boyd said.

CSU’s high school team, called B.E.A.S.T. has won the national Ten80 Education Points Race competition for six years in a row, Boyd said. BEAST is an acronym for Best Engineering and Science Team. Ten80 Education is an organization that develops and publishes kindergarten through 12th grade STEM curriculum, trains educators in STEM and organizes events.

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CSU program participants have competed and won Ten80 competitions with first-place projects that included a hybrid remote control miniature car partially powered by water and an autonomous remote control miniature car.

“The autonomous car was remotely controlled by muscle cells,” Boyd said. “Electro pads were hooked to the arm of a student and to the car. Wires transferred energy from the muscle to the car, which made the car move.”

To participate in PREP, students have to fill out an application, get letters of recommendation from their math and science teachers, provide grades and standardized test scores and write an essay on why they want to participate in the program, Boyd said.

“We look at the whole picture to see if the student has a passion for STEM,” Boyd said.

Cayden and Mehkilei appear to have such passion. Both said they are planning on pursuing STEM careers. Cayden plans on majoring in geology, and Holmes plans on majoring in computer science.

Mehkile likes the diversity of the PREP program.

“If you’re interested in engineering, there’s something for that,” he said. “If you’re interested in technology, there’s something for that, for math, for science. It’s really good to be able to explore your options.”

The program is “really important because some schools don’t teach what we get to learn here,” said Woolery, who worked Saturday with eighth graders Patricia Chavez and Alinna Calatayud on Saturday.

“I like the fact that it pushes you to your limits,” said Patricia, who is considering pursuing a career in engineering.

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During the summer, she said one of the projects she worked on was a robot project using a toy LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot and Play-Doh. Students designed the robot to go inside a simulated human body to collect simulated endometriosis cells, she said.

“It’s very important to expose them to STEM careers at an early age,” said Boyd, who holds a degree in math from CSU. “Who says they can’t learn in fifth grade Newton’s law or be able to apply formulas. It’s amazing what they can learn and develop.”

Program participants are made aware of the importance of taking the necessary math and science courses prior to entering college, so they are prepared, Boyd said. Her daughter, 23-year-old Dekonti Davies, a past program participant and current volunteer, said that’s crucial. She holds a B.S. in bioengineering from University of Missouri and is currently working as a project engineering intern in the plant engineering department at UPS, she said.

While in college, she said, “I saw a lot of people coming in freshman year saying, yes I want to be an engineer, but by December of that year and also going into my sophomore year, a lot of those people weren’t in my classes any longer. They weren’t in engineering any longer . . . They weren’t prepared. There is still a large gap in the education that we receive especially in many inner city schools. Some students come into college never having taken a calculus class.

“It’s important to have programs like PREP to help prepare them” on what’s required, she said.

Boyd said over the past 30 years, 1,500 students have participated in the program and half have gone into STEM careers.

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She finds it rewarding helping students pursue STEM and was recently honored with a Ford Freedom Unsung Award. The award recognizes individuals who give back to the community.

“STEM careers pay good salaries,” she said. “It’s important to have more minorities represented.”

Fknowles.writer@gmail.com



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