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A Bridge Between Black Students and Success in Science

June 17, 2000|EDWARD J. BOYER

Westchester High School senior Rahim Miller, 18, had just returned to campus after taking first place in a national math competition.

A group of his fellow students were unimpressed. They told him that he should forget about "that math stuff" and meet them after school when they "would give him something to smoke."

"OK," Miller calmly told them. "But first you come with me to my science center, and we'll analyze what it is that you're smoking."

The students then decided that they would be better off leaving Miller alone.

Retired laser scientist Hildreth "Hal" Walker and his wife, Bettye, a retired public school principal, love telling that story. For them it illustrates the kind of confidence Miller developed through his involvement in the International Science Discovery and Learning Center they founded eight years ago.

The science center is a place where youngsters can do their homework after school, build models of the Mars Rover, work on laser experiments, build exhibits on magnetic levitation trains, log on to computers or explore the question: "Do parallel universes really exist?"

Students as young as 5 come every day after school to work on math, reading and technology projects. Older students can take SAT preparatory classes, visit technology centers and take special field trips to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida or Edwards Air Force Base to watch space shuttle launches or landings.

Operating from a converted bank building at 101 S. La Brea Ave. in Inglewood, the science center is the Walkers' effort to help bridge the digital divide separating African American youngsters from science technology.

"We want to get technology into the hands of kids," said Bettye Walker. "We've checked out over 200 computers for kids to take home."

But the Walkers make it very clear to students that the computers are for work.

"One thing we don't do here is to just stick a head in front of a computer," Hal said. "The computer is a tool. We have no games."

About 30 students, girls and boys, will be enrolled in the center's Summer Science Academy, attending classes and working on projects from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.

At a recent after-school session, a group of elementary school students put the finishing touches on their models of the Mars Rover. Nile Stribling, 6, and her sister, Mecca, 5, proudly held up their work, pointing out the different parts.

That piece of wire inserted in the top may have looked like a paper clip, but Nile explained that it is the antenna. A clear push pin in front is a camera lens, she said. Her rover sat on toothpick legs wrapped in aluminum foil.

"They see the rover on television," Hal said, "and we have them build one from household items: toothpicks, foil, blocks of Styrofoam. We also hold workshops, seminars and community activities to demystify some of the things associated with space and science."

Inglewood optometrist Marc Simmons, a volunteer at the center, sees its work as "important because it exposes kids to educational and career opportunities they are not aware of. It inspires kids to look to the future at a very young age." The science center has its roots in an educational project Bettye Walker launched 14 years ago when she was principal at Compton's Bunche Elementary School.

Distressed by the steady drumbeat of newscasts describing African American males involved in crime, she formed a mentoring program with UCLA called B-MAP, the Black Male Achievement Project, to promote self-discipline, cultivate ambition in students and interest them in things other than sports and entertainment.

B-MAP evolved into the African American Male Achievers Network (A-MAN), and the program expanded to include boys 5 to 17. Under Hal's guidance, it emphasized technology and the sciences.

When funding for the project ran out eight years ago, the Walkers kept it alive by raising whatever funds they could to keep the doors open.

"I had always wanted to have a center in the community for students who were interested in science," said Hal, who worked on lasers for the Apollo moonwalk.

"A-MAN was originally set up to be a young men's program, using science and technology as a motivational tool," he said. It has since been expanded to include girls in the Young Ladies Achievement Club, he said.

For Rahim Miller, whose grandfather was a Tuskegee airman during World War II, the science center has been an important step toward his goal of becoming an astronaut.

"I see the center as a place where children can be exposed to technology early and become familiar with it," said Miller, who has been involved in the program since he was a fourth-grader. "A-MAN has exposed me to a variety of experiences that I don't think would have been possible otherwise: a trip to Chicago for a national math competition and a study tour of South Africa."

Miller has won a college scholarship and plans to attend Loyola Marymount University, where he will study engineering.

Since 1996, the center has placed four of its students each year as interns in UCLA's department of molecular medicine.

The center is also working with two schools for farm children in the Republic of South Africa, and it has developed partnerships with UCLA, Caltech and the Smithsonian Institution.

Through the Smithsonian, Hal said, "we're tied into a vast database that you just can't get anywhere else."

The center has received corporate support from companies such as Shell Oil, Wells Fargo, TRW, Boeing and Bank of America, Hal said. But the project needs more support to expand.

"We have a backlog of about 100 students who want to be involved," Hal said, "but we don't have the resources to bring them all in."

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