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NSBE nurtures pipeline, retention, of Ohio engineers

carl mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers. Photo | Submitted
carl mack, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers. Photo | Submitted

Carl Mack grew up in Jackson, Miss., where he knew nothing about engineers -- except maybe the one on the train that frequently rumbled past his neighborhood.

But he did well in math and science, so in high school his counselors pushed him to consider engineering as a career option. A visit from a representative of Mississippi State University's engineering co-op program sealed the deal, and Mack enrolled at MSU.

But all was not rosy that first year. Mack almost dropped out.

"I began to realize how ill-prepared I was for the competition at a collegiate level in the field of engineering," he said recently. "And, I was one of maybe five blacks in the entire school of engineering. So, I felt alone."

Yet, Mack didn't drop out. He finished his freshman year well, got an internship with John Deere in Ottumwa, Iowa, and went on to graduate and pursue a successful career in mechanical engineering.

Today, Mack, who in 2005 became executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers, is trying to prevent other minority engineering students -- including those in Ohio -- from doing what he almost did: giving up.

"Currently in the United States, there are about 10,000 African American students every year who declare engineering as their major," Mack says. "However, four to six years later, statistics are showing that only 3,300 or so graduate with an engineering degree. The rest of them either drop out of college or change majors."

In Ohio, the need for well-trained engineers has never been greater. As Ohio's vast manufacturing base recovers, the state will need engineers. And Ohio's high-tech growth economy is powered increasingly by innovators in advanced materials, advanced and alternative energy, biomedical, instruments, controls and electronics -- all of which require an engineer's insights and expertise.

NSBE has forged strong ties within the state, through relationships with engineering schools and with organizations like Battelle Memorial Institute and the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN).

Mack says there are two keys to attracting and keeping young African Americans in the engineering disciplines. First, a pipeline of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) immersed students in the early grades; and then, a robust support structure once those students enter engineering programs. With 250 university chapters, 68 alumni chapters and a growing number of high school chapters in schools around the country, NSBE's MO is to build critical mass from the grass roots up.

The pipeline

On a recent Friday morning, 300 middle-school students in Columbus gathered at St. Stephen's Community House for a glider competition. With the help of NSBE mentors, they had designed their planes for optimum stability, speed and distance.

It didn't seem to matter when, occasionally, a craft would shoot straight up from the runway, stall in mid-air, and crash nose-first. Perfection wasn't the point. It was about learning the basics of engineering -- and having fun, too.

It was all part of the Linden-area SEEK Camp, led by NSBE and supported by a wide array of partners such as the OSLN, the Columbus City Schools, Battelle, The Society of Automotive Engineers, Ohio State University and St. Stephen's Community House, which hosted the camp.

SEEK -- which stands for the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids -- provides kids going into 6th, 7th and 8th grades with an opportunity to work with engineering students from NSBE student chapters across the country. Each week they pursue a different design project, working in teams led by NSBE college students as mentors.

The Columbus camp is one of two such camps run each summer in the United States -- the other is in Washington, D.C., near NSBE's Alexandria, Va., headquarters.

Kyle Hardy is one of the mentors, and, like most of the students at SEEK Camp, grew up in the nearby Linden neighborhood. A sophomore engineering student at Ohio State and a member of NSBE's Ohio State University student chapter, he's in his second year at the camp.

"I'm from this community," Hardy says, "and I see the paths kids take -- you either go one way, or the other way, so I want to pull more kids toward the college path. This is a great way to introduce them to engineering and get them to know that math and science can be fun."

Hardy joined NSBE after he realized "there were very, very few African American engineering students at Ohio State. I found it as another family for me. There were a few people I could go to and talk to when things got tough, or when I needed help with something -- what classes to take, for example."

Yohance Hall is another soldier in the NSBE army.  An Eaton Corp. engineer and 2000 graduate of the University of Akron, Hall has served as president of NSBE's northeast Ohio alumni chapter since 2008.

"You can never forget that someone helped us to get where we are, and now is our chance to give back," he says. "We try to reach out to college groups and pre-college groups."

That includes mentoring members of the Greater Cleveland NSBE Junior chapter, whose members include students attending MC2STEM and Design Lab high schools, both of which are OSLN schools.

The Partnerships

Mack says partnerships are crucial in his organization's efforts. He credits Columbus-based Battelle, a founding sponsor of the SEEK Camp, with much of NSBE's growth in Ohio.

He remembers a 2006 meeting with Rich Rosen (Battelle's corporate vice president of education and philanthropy and executive director of OSLN) and Bob Lincoln (then Battelle's vice president of human resources) at which the need for more African Americans in engineering and science was discussed. At that meeting Rosen and Lincoln spoke about Battelle's vision for a high-tech corridor in central Ohio, and their description of Battelle as an organization in need of a more diverse workforce. Then, they offered to pay the $5-a-head membership fee for any Columbus student recruited into a NSBE Junior chapter.

"At one point, Columbus had more black kids as NSBE Junior members than the rest of the United States combined," Mack says.  "Why? Because of the partnership with Battelle."

The Columbus City Schools helped in that effort by inviting Mack to speak to middle school and high school principals around the district, he says.

Thus were planted the seeds for a relationship that later resulted in Battelle's $1-million commitment to help NSBE fund educational programs for young African Americans nationwide, Mack says -- a commitment that led to programs like the SEEK Camp.

Preserving the gains

It's not enough to build interest in the early grades, Mack says. Strong programs need to be in place to keep engineering students on course for their degrees. A nascent program successfully begun at Clarkson University in New York, and now being pursued at other universities like Ohio State and the University of Dayton, establishes study groups to prepare students for exams -- particularly in "weeder" courses like chemistry and physics that often are the reasons for dropping out.

Mack's goal, ultimately, is to reach a place where "when I've got 10,000 coming in, I've got 10,000 going out."


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