Oakland Students excited to learn in Summer Engineering Program

James Hughes, 9, in the SEEK program gets ready to race his solar powered car.

James Hughes, 9, in the SEEK program gets ready to race his solar powered car.

Last Friday on a sunny morning at Martin Luther King Elementary School in West Oakland, more than 400 students joined by parents, teachers, and community leaders celebrated the conclusion of the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids program.

Fourth grader Jakai Tutler, 9, has worked with his classmates over the last three weeks to build 5mph toy cars decorated with everything from bright red flames to a complete diorama of “The Joker’s World” referencing the Batman super villain from DC Comics. Tutler said after being in the program, he’s interested in becoming an engineer and designing a solar powered airplane.

“When I build the plane, I want to make sure it has room for my friends so we can fly over Oakland,” said Tutler. “I didn’t know much about engineering before I came here, but I definitely want to come back next year.”

SEEK started six years ago in Washington, D.C. as a free summer engineering program for children from third to eighth grade. It is designed to get children interested in engineering by teaching them the fundamentals while also allowing them to build their own projects. They worked in small groups with young college students from around the country to design and build their own toy solar cars and steel can rovers.

Mentor Daramani Swift, an Oakland native and sophomore Computer Science Major at North Carolina A&T University participated for his first time with SEEK this year. He said working with the students in SEEK inspired him to pursue a teaching career.

“It’s a great way to give back to community and benefits Oakland,” said Swift. “I can see that these kids need direction for all of their energy, so we teach them prototype designs with the basic skills of engineering and watch them create their own projects.”

The three-week program started in 2011 with 200 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders generally from West Oakland. Now, the program has doubled in size and tripled in demand as word spread among parents and teachers who saw the benefits of the program.

“Since we have seen success with the program, MLK trains teachers to incorporate the SEEK lessons into the curriculum,” said Renee Manson, SEEK Site Director. “We received thousands of applications this summer just based on word of mouth from parents.”

Students from San Leandro, Richmond, and San Francisco are also enrolled in SEEK. Some of MLK’s SEEK sponsors include Chevron, Faith Network Partners, and the New Birth Ministry Church. On the last day of the program, students were treated to a pizza party and presented their designs to the community as well as various competitions that measured their solar cars speed and accuracy.

“We want to create an education pipeline where kids from Hoover, Prescott, Lafayette elementary schools feed into West Oakland Middle School and later McClymonds High School with better math and science skills,” said Roma Groves, MLK’s Principal.

“When parents and the community are happy, the students thrive and come to school ready to learn,” Groves added. She hopes to organize a West Oakland competition in January.

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