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Mizzou group building on academic excellence

Calvin Phillips, a computer engineering senior from St. Louis, aids a Columbia middle school student with his homework. Mizzou Engineering’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) holds weekly math and science tutoring sessions for middle school and high school students at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Columbia.

With the help of a Mizzou Engineering student group, several Hickman High School youths recently upheld a weighty Missouri tradition—using only paper and some tape.

Nearly 40 members of the Columbia high school’s Minority Achievement Committee (MAC) Scholars program participated in an informal engineering contest on Nov. 13 to see who could best design a paper platform capable of holding the state’s annual “Blue Book.” The winning entry featured paper rolled and taped into cylinders that easily held the three-inch-thick state manual for 30 seconds, as required by the competition.

Senior Quan Hord-Bush, a member of the high school group’s winning team, said the design contest reinforced his interest in pursuing engineering as a career.

“Engineering is one of my top choices,” Hord-Bush said. “Engineering or business—I have to choose.”

MU’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) helped Mizzou Engineering’s diversity office run the first-time Hickman event in hopes of steering students like Hord-Bush towards the engineering field. NSBE members also have been offering weekly tutoring sessions to Columbia middle and high school students for the last 1½ years to encourage them to set their sights on math- or science-oriented careers.

NSBE is a national professional development organization that aims to increase the number of black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and contribute to their communities.

Mizzou NSBE Chair Eric Thomas, an electrical engineering senior, said the MU group is focusing its efforts on students as young as sixth grade because that is when many start to fear the complexities of math and science. NSBE members hope that by showing middle and high school students they can successfully tackle those subjects, the youths will be more likely to try math-intensive careers, Thomas said.

“If we can get them to realize they can succeed at math and science, maybe they’ll give engineering a try in the future,” he said.

Symone Thomas, MAC program coordinator for the Columbia Public School District, believes such efforts motivate high school students by demonstrating college success. NSBE members serve as role models for the younger students, she said.

That example is particularly important when it comes to engineering, a difficult degree program with a low proportion of minority students, said Albert “JR” Swanegan, Mizzou Engineering’s director of diversity and outreach initiatives. NSBE members consider their academic success an opportunity for community service, he said.

“Certainly these students recognize they are in a unique position to give back to the students coming behind them, and they do so in a number of ways,” Swanegan said.