STEM fields seek local student interest

Temple’s STEM program attempts to matriculate high school students.

John Leigh, the program director at Pennsylvania MESA, organizes programs and events for the different programs held at Temple’s College of Engineering, including Robotic Skills Academy. | Taylor Spicer TTN
John Leigh, the program director at Pennsylvania MESA, organizes programs and events for the different programs held at Temple’s College of Engineering, including Robotic Skills Academy. | Taylor Spicer TTN

Last Saturday, Philadelphia  high school students crowded around worktables at the College of Engineering, meticulously assembling contraptions of their design – one group launched a marble from a slingshot into a box, where it rolled through a system they’d created and knocked over a line of dominos. 

After successful demolition, cheers erupted to celebrate the functioning design.

The students were participating in the Robotics Skills Academy, one experience available with the Pennsylvania Math, Engineering and Science Achievement program, a part of Temple’s Science Technology Engineering and Math program. They each came from schools associated with the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.

Temple’s MESA program, one of the oldest and largest STEM programs in the country, strives to matriculate students through the system into higher education. In 2013, Pennsylvania MESA became nationally recognized for its award-winning computer science/mobile app and engineering programs.

Jamie Bracey, director of STEM’s Education, Outreach and Research and founding director of Pennsylvania MESA, said MESA aims to extend the possibilities of a STEM career path to minority and female students.

“My passion is around the potential of people to take information and change their lives,” Bracey said. “It’s simple – a little knowledge goes a long way.”

She said a number of Pennsylvania MESA graduates who went through the program in high school are now pursuing degrees at Philadelphia universities, including Temple, Villanova and Drexel. One of those students, freshman journalism major and computer science minor Zuliesuivie Ball, said without the program, she would never have been interested in technology.

“My main goal was to get into Temple,” Ball said. “I went [to Pennsylvania MESA] every Saturday, and I actually grew a passion – the program sparked an interest in that field.”

Ball said she’d like to see more girls get involved in the program.

“[If] you don’t see girls, or someone of your own kind in [the field], it’s intimidating,” Ball said. “Like, ‘I don’t want to be part of this.’”

That’s exactly what Temple’s STEM program hopes to avoid with the Pennsylvania MESA programs, which include a Mobile App program and a summer internship experience. The programs are also designed to be of value to enrolled undergraduate students pursuing STEM degrees, Bracey said. When Pennsylvania MESA grew to serve 1,200 Philadelphia students in 2012, 15 Temple students in TUTeach were hired as instructors. In addition, those students eligible for work study can be hired as teaching assistants.

Louvina Jackman, a senior mechanical engineering major, has been a part of STEM since coming to Temple, acting as one such student-instructors.

“I think ‘mentor’ is a good name for what our title is, because although we help [the students] out with the engineering aspect of it, we also help them out on a personal level, asking what they’re doing outside of this program and where they think they’ll end up going to college,” Jackman said. “We want to encourage them to stay within the math, science and engineering field.”

Kevin Layos, a fifth-year electrical engineering major, and Soukaina Barakat, a mechanical engineering alumna, agreed with Jackman. They said they help prepare students currently in the Robotic Skills Academy to take part in an eventual competition this spring, for which they will design a robotic arm.

Freshman computer science major Iyasu Watts went through Pennsylvania MESA with Ball. He was employed in the technological field as a software developer at Enertia and is an intern at Lead iD. He said working in a STEM field has “always been a goal.” Ball, who was introduced to Pennsylvania MESA through Watts, called him “very tech-savvy.”

“You don’t hear about a lot of these programs, and if you do, they’re very exclusive,” Watts said. “The reality is, so many more students should be doing this on this level. It teaches them skills and puts them on a path so that they do it on their own, so they feel they actually want to do it.”

Watts said he believes technology is essential to success in today’s job market, since it plays a role in nearly every industry.

“Sometimes you need different people with different perspectives to tackle new problems,” he said. “The [field] needs to be culturally diversified, because people will have different ways of looking at a problem.”

His opinion was reemphasized by John Leigh, the program coordinator for Pennsylvania MESA. Leigh, who’s been with the program for five months, said his goal is for the participating students to “really see themselves as innovators.”

He said an aptitude for STEM fields could only strengthen a student’s skillset, particularly once they begin job searching.

“Once [the students] come on to the campus, [they know] what they want to do,” Leigh said. “They have that confidence that they can make it and succeed.”

Alumnus Robert Figlin, Steven Spielberg Family Chair in Hematology Oncology and professor of medicine and biomechanical sciences in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, recently pledged $50,000 to help establish two new scholarships for Temple students in STEM majors.

Members, instructors and directors alike agreed that through educational opportunities and scholarships such as Figlin’s, the ultimate goal is to promote higher learning. Ball said that although she still wants to pursue writing as a main career focus, she thinks her time in the program will give her an advantage.

“I like the idea that your idea amongst other person’s ideas can turn into a bigger idea,” Ball said, expressing the value of technology. “If you have knowledge in that arena, you can mix the two together.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at and on Twitter @erinJustineET.

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