Program gives students career options

Program gives students career options
by Elahe Izadi

Seventh-grader Elvis Jimenez of Riverdale said he never really thought much about sea turtles, but since January, he has voluntarily been spending time during and after school shooting and producing video segments about saving the aquatic reptiles.

“I care about it now, because we have a chance to save these animals that are going extinct,” he said.

Jimenez, 12, is one of 26 students at William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale participating in a nationwide competition with math, art and science challenges, organized and partially funded by the Houston-based nonprofit Communication, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or CSTEM.

Students at Bladensburg High School, and feeder schools William Wirt Middle and Port Towns Elementary in Bladensburg, have teamed up since January to compete in the CSTEM challenge. About 30 students will travel to the May 8 competition in Houston, where they will be the only participants from the East Coast.

CSTEM founder/CEO Reagan Flowers said the aim of the four-year program is to close the achievement gap of underrepresented groups, particularly African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and women, in math and science careers.

“This is about helping teachers bring real world challenges to the classroom, where [students] can do hands-on and project-based learning,” Flowers said. Projects include building robots, designing murals and illustrating a children’s book.

Corporate sponsors asked Flowers to expand CSTEM this year, so Flowers looked to areas where CSTEM volunteers had come from, such as former CSTEM volunteer Zena Whitworth, now Bladensburg High’s English department chairwoman.

“If you’re interested in saving the planet and making a difference, then CSTEM is where you want to be,” Whitworth said. “These kids are interested in doing something different and something progressive.”

A team from Mississippi will also compete this year along with about 50 feeder pattern schools (high, middle and elementary) from Texas.

Stacey Montgomery, William Wirt media specialist and CSTEM coordinator, said she wants her students to think about future careers in science.

“I want them to feel like science is a field that they should continue to be excellent in,” she said. “I want them to be inspired to go into those careers.”

Seventh-graders Nester Villanueva, 12, of Bladensburg and Gregory Gails, 13, of Riverdale originally joined CSTEM because they love to draw, but now say they care about saving sea turtles from extinction.

Nester said he liked working with the Port Towns Elementary students because they had many interesting ideas, such as drawing cartoon sea turtles for inclusion in the middle school mural.

Gregory agreed, saying that the high school students incorporated all of the CSTEM challenges into one mural and that the older students “give you different perspectives of things.”

CSTEM pays for the students’ materials and some travel expenses through corporate sponsorships. William Wirt and Port Towns are using some Title I funding as well, and Montgomery anticipates 12 of her 26 students will be able to attend the competition. Whitworth thinks only six of her registered 60 students can attend. They will be the ambassadors, who are chosen by teachers and have extra responsibilities in the challenge.

The teachers are searching for extra funding and donations to allow more students to attend the national competition.

Nester and Gregory said they don’t know whether they will be traveling to Houston.

Nester said “everyone should get the opportunity to get that experience,” but Gregory reminded him “at least we helped out here.”

As Nester looked over one of his drawings, he agreed, saying, “Yeah. So over there, they get to see our work.”

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