Ypsi schools revive local chapter of national organization for young black engineers

Eight enthusiastic teens have been gathering once a week after class at Ypsilanti Community High School (YCHS) to soup up a radio-controlled model car that they hope will do laps around the competition at an upcoming national convention in Pennsylvania.


They're part of a Student Racing Challenge team, organized by STEM learning initiative Ten80, that made it possible for Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) to revive the only National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) Jr. chapter in Washtenaw County. The team consists of seven juniors and one sophomore. Art teacher Lynne Settles and math teacher Nicholas Bertsos serve as the team's advisers.


NSBE supports and promotes the aspirations of African-Americans who are interested in pursuing engineering and technology as students or as professionals. It's one of the country's largest student-governed organizations, with more than 500 chapters and 16,000 active members.


YCHS' initial NSBE Jr. chapter was formed in 2008, but eventually became inactive due to lack of interest from students and teachers. Efforts to revive the chapter began last spring when Settles met Jennifer Banks, math and science coordinator for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, at the Michigan Department of Education's Top 10 in 10 Innovation Roadshow in Flint.


Banks approached Settles after watching a few Ypsi art students, including one of the new NSBE Jr. members, give a presentation on their Ypsilanti African-American Mural Project as part of a group called the Teen Art Committee. Banks told Settles that it would be wonderful if her students could get as excited about math and science as they do about art, so they decided to incorporate all three into the reincarnated NSBE Jr. chapter.


"This is a great group of kids that are very active in the community and socially conscious. They play a lot, but they’re committed to it," Settles says.


For the past several weeks, the students have met every Thursday evening at YCHS, 2095 Packard St., to increase the car's speed by making alterations such as changing the battery and wheels or adding a spoiler. They've received some help from Toyota engineers and students from the University of Michigan who are involved in NSBE.


Deahja Tigner, the chapter's vice president, and her teammates often feel like they're the underdogs compared to students at rival high schools, especially in Ann Arbor. They say YCS doesn't offer as many opportunities as more affluent schools, so they wanted to jump on the chance to join a nationally recognized organization that no other school in Washtenaw County is involved in.


"Coming from the school district that we come from, we already have a lot of people who doubt us simply because of previous years," Tigner says. "So we’re wiping that dirt off our name and we’re showing them that we have just as much talent as these other schools, if not more."


Maximilian Harper, one of the chapter's two presidents, echoes the desire to "come out of the shadow of Ann Arbor." The reincarnation of the chapter comes at a time when the American Center for Mobility (ACM) is establishing an autonomous vehicle testing facility on the site of the historic Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsi Township. Harper sees both the NSBE Jr. chapter and the ACM facility as new opportunities that can help to elevate Ypsi.


"I feel like all these new things that are coming to Ypsilanti, all the projects that we do, all the new collaborations, and all the new programs that are coming here is going to help us shine," Harper says. "We want to be acknowledged. We don't want to be looked over anymore."


Most of the students were interested in joining NSBE Jr. because it provided them the opportunity to learn about engineering and to add an extracurricular activity to their college applications and resumes. Some of them are even considering careers in engineering or engineering-related fields.


Bennie Williams, the chapter's other president, lives in the West Willow neighborhood surrounding the ACM facility and wants to become a commercial pilot. He thinks he'll learn things through his involvement in NSBE Jr. that will come in handy when he studies aviation.


"Engineering comes in perspective when it comes to working on planes, understanding the structure of planes, how they're built, how they function, how they're able to move through the air, basically," Williams says.
Williams also wanted to join NSBE, Jr. because it's a new opportunity for students of color at his high school. He thinks representation is important because he's not familiar with many African-American engineers. Banks says Williams and his teammates will have the chance to mingle with thousands of successful, college-educated professionals at NSBE's 44th annual national convention in Pittsburgh in March. She believes it will be motivational for the YCS students to see so many people of color who are doing exceptional things in engineering and technology.


The team will get the chance to test its car tomorrow, Feb. 1, at a Ten80 invitational race hosted by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District at Ypsilanti Middle School, 235 Spencer Lane. They'll compete against teams from Dearborn, Southfield, and Macomb. Ypsilanti Middle School students who participate in another Ten80 Student Racing Challenge team will race their own car as well.


Tomorrow's local race is a precursor to the national competition during NSBE's national convention. The YCHS team is seeking $15,000 from corporate and individual sponsors to finance the team's trip so they can compete against 50 other NSBE Jr. teams from across the country at the convention. Anyone interested in contributing to the fundraising effort should email Banks at jbanks@washtenawisd.org.


Since the students are so interested in art, one of the things they're most excited about is designing their car. They plan on drawing inspiration from their school colors – black and gold – and their mascot, the Grizzlies. They've officially named the car "Becky with the Good Wheels," a nod to a lyric in the Beyoncé song "Sorry."


"Even if it’s not the fastest, it’ll be the flyest," Tigner says.


Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.


All photos by Doug Coombe.

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