Every summer for the last decade, they arrive at the campus of Loyola Marymount University unsure of what the next two weeks will have in store for them. They come from all over Los Angeles and in the past, from all corners of California.
The thread that binds these high school students is an affinity for mathematics and science, the desire to hone these skills and the opportunity that LMU presents to these select scholars to utilize its facilities as well as the decades of experience of the faculty from the university’s school of engineering.
Now in its 10th year, LMU’s Science and Engineering Community Outreach Program (SECOP) has offered over 200 minority and female students an intense two-week course of introduction into the world of science and engineering. The young scholars — many of whom have never set foot on a college campus — take part in SECOP with the desire to expand their mathematical skills and to learn from some of the leading professors in the nation.
An added bonus is that the students get a glimpse of what college life is all about, up close and personal. They stay in the university’s dorms, eat in the student cafeteria and study under university faculty.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Oliver Adams, a former Westchester High School student who participated in SECOP in 2007. “It was a lot of fun, and it was a good experience working with a group instead of by yourself.”
While the students always change, the program’s mission remains constant.
“Every year we have different students, but the goals are the same every year, which is to improve the pipeline of minorities studying science, technology and math at the college level,” explained Barbara Christie, an adjunct professor and LMU’s director of SECOP. “Fifty-eight percent of our students are always women, and I was really impressed with them this year.”
Christie said that during the two-week summer program, the teens form strong bonds as they get to know each other and learn more abut their own capabilities.
“Each year that goes by, we see them really growing closer with each other and working well with each other,” she said.
This year’s crop of potential future engineers, whose last day on campus was July 16, consisted of nine young women and seven teenage boys from across Los Angeles. During their last week at LMU, they built a variety of robots that encompassed the theoretical applications that they learned in the classroom and combined them with the practical skills they will need as future engineers.
Anthony Salazar, a Marina del Rey resident who is a junior at the Da Vinci School of Science, said that hands-on experience will be valuable when he returns to school in September.
“We’ve been learning a lot through our projects,” he said. “It’s been very interesting.”
Christie said recent SECOP participants are becoming much more comfortable with the field of engineering and what it entails.
“Ten years ago, the kids were really afraid of the word engineering,” the SECOP director said. “They were much more comfortable with science, and now what I’m finding is our kids are much more comfortable with engineering, and our camp is helping them specialize in a specific kind of engineering.”
Christie says one of the testaments of the program’s success is the return of its graduates to assist new students who are interested in pursuing careers in engineering and technology. One SECOP alumna, Leslie Wall, now a civil engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, has returned each year since she graduated from LMU in 2007.
“Leslie was a real leader in the program, and she was one of the students that I was closest to that we’ve had here,” Christie said. “She is truly one of our success stories.”
Wall, who returned this year to speak to students like Salazar, still remembers her time in SECOP.
“It was where I learned how to become an engineer,” said Wall, a Chino native who decided to enroll at LMU after attending the summer program. “I think Barbara Christie does a wonderful job with the students.”
Christie says the role that Wall and other SECOP graduates play in the program is invaluable.
“One of our biggest strengths in the program is having our graduates, some who have come from the same high schools and neighborhoods, and now they’re successful professionals, come back and mentor these kids,” she said. “The kids can see themselves having a successful career in science in a few years.”
The SECOP director said the growing numbers of women and other ethnic minorities entering into the various technological and engineering fields tend to mirror national trends in math-based disciplines.
“Women are gravitating more toward chemical and civil engineering, more domestic forms of engineering where they feel they can make more of a social impact,” Christie noted. “They are still not as involved in the mechanical and computer engineering, and it’s going to take a lot of work to encourage them to do that.”
Salazar is not sure which field of engineering that he would like to pursue, but he is certain about his career choice.
“I have a great interest in science and engineering, but to be honest, it’s hard choosing between the two right now,” he admitted.
He also touched on the experience of being on a college campus, of learning from well-known professors and listening to SECOP graduates like Wall for two weeks.
“It’s been great,” Salazar said. “I’ve only been to one college campus before, but I’ve never lived in a college dorm.
“This experience, in a lot of ways, helps prepare you for college.”
Wall, who has served as a counselor and assistant to Christie, is warming to her new role of mentor.
“SECOP is such a wonderful program,” she said. “I get to talk to students and let them know that I was once in their shoes and that I can relate to some of their aspirations for a career in science or engineering.”
As the 10th year of SECOP came to a close, Christie was already thinking about year 11 next summer.
“I can hardly wait,” she said with a smile.