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Compelling Nonfiction

Why I left literature for engineering outreach
January 8, 2007

My office window looks out on a frenzy of Mass. Ave. traffic and late students hurrying to lab. But that scene pales in comparison to the energetic bustle within my office. As director of MIT’s Saturday Engineering Enrichment and Discovery (SEED) Academy, an academic enrichment and technical-career exploration program for students in Boston, Cambridge, and Lawrence public high schools, I am involved in the lives of 80 dynamic, challenging, warm, sometimes demanding, and often very humorous teenagers.

Nicole Stark directs the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs’ SEED Academy. SEED is one of three programs that nurture traditionally underserved public-school students.

Our students come to campus for 10 Saturdays each semester to develop their math, science, and communication skills by working on engineering projects. On a given Saturday, our four classes might be measuring stress and strain factors on a student-designed cable-stayed bridge, using Python to develop a personalized computer hangman game, testing the effect of wingspan variance on model planes flown in Johnson Athletic Center, and investigating the circuitry of a soda-vending machine (yes, sometimes there are samples). It doesn’t get more hands-on than this.

I am not exempt from the experiential learning. I’ve been called upon to comment on Benjamin’s science-fair proposal, answer France’s questions about a college financial-aid package, facilitate an impromptu roundtable discussion on technology and international and domestic development with Jared and Tarik, and provide “nonpartisan” feedback on relationship questions from students who shall remain nameless. With endless requests for duct tape, stopwatches, X-Acto knives, goggles, and Play-Doh, sometimes it seems more as if I am on Let’s Make a Deal than at MIT.

Because our students participate in the program for seven semesters, they grow up with us. Conversations change from critiques of our lunch fare to debates over which colleges produce the most MIT grad students. In SEED Academy, students develop a much richer understanding of the technical fields than most of their peers. Whether they end up pursing careers in labs, in courtrooms, or elsewhere, their experience with us will inform their professional work.

Sometimes our students don’t fit the “traditional” model of high-potential students. I met one of our current juniors after I gave a presentation at a local high school and he approached me to ask if our students had to have straight As. (They don’t, but we expect that to become a goal.) Although his grades were not impressive, he was fascinated by automotive repair and design. He had contacted the host of a cable show on rehabbing cars for advice on following a similar career path. At SEED, he has developed cars in Mechanical Engineering and flown model planes in Aero-Astro; now he’s tackling Computer Science.

Given my background in English and American literature and African-American studies, an engineering outreach office wasn’t an obvious place for me to end up. On an average day at work, I don’t get to discuss Derek Walcott’s place in the literary canon or the impact of Irish immigration on 19th-century American literature. So one might ask, “What’s a nice humanities girl like you doing in a place like MIT?”

My own story is central to why I believe outreach work is so important. When my great-grandparents emigrated from Barbados around 1900 and came to Central Square, they couldn’t get work at institutions like MIT; they were people of color and immigrants. Clearly, much has changed in three generations. Through SEED Academy, I help induct students with very similar family histories into the MIT community–not as workers but as learners. The significance is not lost on me.

Nor are the stories that SEED spawns. A student from Lawrence Public Schools, where just 11 percent of the class of 2005 planned to pursue four-year degrees, announced that she intends to earn a PhD in computer science. Another student–the first in her family to attend college–was accepted by 10 universities. At SEED, smart, motivated kids aren’t seen as different or weird. “No one is considered an outcast in SEED’s social environment,” wrote a student in a program evaluation. “I find that beyond amazing.”

As the next chapters unfold in our students’ compelling, real-life tales, I expect to be amazed myself.

Nicole Stark directs the MIT Office of Engineering Outreach Programs’ SEED Academy. SEED is one of three programs that nurture traditionally underserved public-school students.

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