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Be True to Your School

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

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.

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.