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Science Careers Blog

October 3, 2008

Be True to Your School

Summer offers students a chance to make a little money, have fun, goof off, or--as in the case of 10 recent alumni of Eleanor Roosevelt High School (ERHS) in Greenbelt, Maryland--redesign the school's engineering curriculum.

One of the elite institutions in Prince George's County, Maryland, with rigorous enrollment requirements and often a waiting list, ERHS asked a group of its recent graduates to spend 6 weeks this past summer bringing its engineering curriculum up to date.

About one-third of ERHS's 2700 students take part in the school's science and technology magnet program. The program requires all freshman to take two introductory engineering classes, but those classes had changed little since they started in 1976. Located north and east of Washington, DC, Prince George's County is 63% African-American, making the program a key source of minority talent in science and technology for universities.

Jane Hemelt, coordinator of the science and technology program, recognized the need for a new curriculum, but like many public schools, needed help finding the resources--skilled staff and money--to make it happen. For the skilled staff, Hemelt called on Rocco Mennella, a mathematics faculty member at ERHS who also teaches at nearby Catholic University and Prince George's Community College. Mennella had already recruited a group of recent ERHS graduates to tutor university pre-calculus students over the summer. Hemelt convinced Mennella and his tutors to help with the curriculum upgrade as well. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) provided a grant.

Those former ERHS students returned from some of the country's leading institutions: Caltech, MIT, Brown, Johns Hopkins, Georgia Tech, and University of Maryland. As the project got underway and the students and faculty adviser began exchanging ideas, Mennella decided to step out of the picture let the students run the show. The students got input from some 50 engineering professors and fashioned a program with academic rigor, combining physics, math, and computer science. The classes expose students to civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering, adding practical hands-on exercises (e.g., designing the Taj Mahal, building an SUV) to provide a dose of reality as well as some fun.

HHMI's Web site tells more about this program. There's no indication if the ERHS grads were also able to sneak in a sun tan.

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