Mousetrap cars, egg drops and bridge building: “SECME-tized” teachers provide students with ability to reach for their dreams

Mousetrap cars, egg drops and bridge building: “SECME-tized” teachers provide students with ability to reach for their dreams – Science, Engineering, Communications, Mathematics Enrichment program

Kendra Hamilton

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – With his close-cropped sandy hair, slight build and dark conservative suit, Michael Penrod looked like an evangelist. His eyes blazed with intensity as he spoke to the crowd of more than 200 late last month. His voice rose and fell with cadences learned, he said, at his preacher father’s knee.

But the young man wasn’t an evangelist. He had just been named “Teacher of the Year” by SECME – the Science, Engineering, Communications, Mathematics Enrichment program, celebrating its twenty-first year of teacher training at a summer institute at the University of Virginia.

And the story Penrod was telling to a rapt audience of teachers, principals, administrators, and university and industry officials was the teacher’s version of the conversion tale – a young man snatched from the brink of dropping out of school.

“And he came to my door, that young man who’d been in my dropout prevention class two years ago, and he smiled at me,” Penrod said, as he wound toward the conclusion of his tale “‘Hello, Mr. Penrod, I’m back,’ he said. ‘Are we going to build mousetrap cars this year?’

“And I said, ‘Yes, we would.’

“‘Will we do the egg drop this year – and bridge building and the lunar colony, too?’ he asked.

“And I said, ‘Yes, and yes, and no – we won’t have time for the lunar colony this year.’ But as he moved to his seat, I felt my heart lift with pride,” Penrod said, his voice swelling and his arms rising as if to convey a blessing, “because that young man was not repeating my dropout prevention class. No, indeed. He was stepping,” – and here he paused for dramatic effect – “into my honors physics class!”

At this, the teachers surged from their seats, exploding into applause and the trademark “SECME yell.” While Penrod exhorted the students in the crowd to “reach for your star … reach for your dreams,” the crowd chanted “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Hand-On Stuff

Indeed, mousetrap cars, rockets made from bottles, and platforms engineered to cushion the fall of an egg hardly seem to be the stuff of which religious experiences are made. But SECME’s annual summer institute seems to have just that effect upon its participants.

“It happens every year. They get SECME-tized,” says Associate Director Brenda Simmons, who handles all issues related to curriculum, teacher training and liaison among school system, university and industry partners.

“Teachers will come [to the annual institute] and go home on fire,” Simmons says, her voice raspy from nearly ten days of workshops and making speeches. “I’ve got one administrator who came up to me this year – she’s the director of science for the Palm Beach County schools – and her goal is to spread the SECME model to all eighty-three schools in the district.”

And just what is the model that’s causing such a stir? Simmons and a task force of top educators are developing a resource guide on just that topic. But you won’t find students in a SECME classroom sitting quietly in rows, eyes cast down into books or cast upwards – and glazing – as a teacher lectures. SECME kids work in teams collaborating on projects, and their teachers roll up their sleeves and get right down to work with them.

It’s hands-on stuff, right in line with the latest pedagogical research. It’s won SECME a nomination for the 1997 Presidential Awards. And it’s won believers among a growing cadre of captains of industry as well. Karl Paul, human resource account manager for Hewlett-Packard, is one of them.

“When I judged a mousetrap car competition at Florida A&M, I watched with amazement as students figured drag coefficients, used levelers to compensate for a bumpy floor and made engineering modifications. Somewhere, somehow, a teacher inspired them,” he said. “To get across physics and calculus … we must get the students’ attention and keep it.”

Brigadier Gen. Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the test pilot and space shuttle commander who keynoted the Teacher of the Year banquet, agreed.

“You’ve got to have math and science in your tool kit, especially in this era of global competition…. It all comes back to education and training,” he said.

Growth of a Concept

According to Executive Director Guy Vickers, SECME was established in 1975 by the deans of seven southeastern universities. All were aware that “it all comes back to education and training,” and they were particularly concerned about the dearth of minorities in the high technology fields that they saw as key to the nation’s economic health.

Then called the Southeastern Council for Minorities in Engineering, the group formed partnerships between industry and school systems. They established SECME teams composed of principals, counselors, media specialists and teachers at elementary, middle and high schools.

Each year since the group’s inception, team members have participated in courses and workshops at the summer institutes hosted on a rotating basis by member universities. The university’s engineering and education faculty design the courses, along with SECME “master teachers.”

Teachers and counselors bring teams of students for the mousetrap car competitions. And they take home packets of new curricula and ideas for integrating computer technology and engineering tasks into the classroom.

The original group of seven participating universities has expanded to thirty-seven, along with, at last count, sixty-five industry and governmental partners – from NASA and the Department of Energy to INTEL and Lockheed Martin. There are also eighty-four pre-collegiate school systems, encompassing 583 schools and 27,870 students in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Since 1980, some 49,475 SECME seniors have graduated from high school. Surveys show that 75 percent of the respondents planned to attend a four year college. And they got there on the strength of average SAT scores of 1003 – 147 points higher than the U.S. African American average and 97 points higher than the U.S. Hispanic average. Half of them planned to major in science, math, engineering and technology fields.

The system has its flaws. The key role played by university partners limits SECME’s penetration into rural areas. Still, the growth has been phenomenal, and most of it, teachers and officials agree, has come during Vickers’s eight-year tenure.

Asked about that statistic, Vickers said matter-of-factly, “We have to run things like a business. Anecdotal is nice. But corporate America is saying, ‘We must see the results.’ [At SECME,] we’re in the business of producing first-class results.”

Those results include a healthy bottom line with total net assets of approximately $424,000, according to the most recent annual report. Additionally, revenues from government and foundation grants, corporate contributions and programs total more than $1.2 million.

Giving Children Opportunity

Still, like everyone else associated with SECME, Vickers appears to get most excited about kids.

“The beauty of SECME is that it’s not just for the high-achieving kid – though of course, we don’t discriminate against them. But SECME is for the kind of kid I was,” Vickers said.

“I grew up in upstate New York,” he explained. “I played ball, and I was going to the pros. I read it in the paper and I swallowed it – hook, line and sinker. My mother was a single parent of three kids, but I have to hand it to her she made sure that all of us got advanced degrees. One of my sisters is an assistant district attorney now. The other is a chaplain at a prison.”

Being a “mature ex-jock” gives Vickers an ironical take on what he calls the blue chip syndrome.

“You see how in sports they identify these kids early, tell them they’re ‘blue chip’ and give them the best of everything – the best camps, the best facilities, constant encouragement. Then the next thing you know your blue chip is at Georgia Tech or UCLA. Yet if you try to provide that type of academic opportunity, people get all bent out of shape …

“Well, I had my mother behind me, and there was also a teacher who said to me, ‘You can do more than play ball.’ That meant so much. So I am adamant now about giving children that opportunity.

“I mean, there’s a whole world out there that’s exciting … and if you’re a well-rounded, high academics, blue-chip prospect, it can be all yours.

“And what’s the best way of achieving that?” Vickers asks, pausing for effect before answering. “Through teachers!”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group