Project ENGAGES: It Takes a Community

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The third in a series of stories about Project ENGAGES, which recently began its second year at the Petit Institute.

Project ENGAGES, an ambitious high school education program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is evolving kind of like a bioengineered system, where organically-informed human innovation enhances the natural process.

It began with the common understanding that minorities are underrepresented in science and engineering fields, and with Bob Nerem’s recognition that the only way to increase the pipeline of strong minority scholars was to reach back to grades K through 12. Nerem also believed that an extended program would be necessary to adequately serve the brilliant kids he imagined would be working and learning in the labs of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience.

Now in its second year, the former Project ENGAGE has added an ‘S’ to better reflect its focus on science (ENGAGES stands for Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering and Science). It’s also more than doubled in size (10 students completed the first year, and there will be 24 for the second, now in two different tracks – bioscience and engineering). And the program is already paying off in ways Nerem and his co-founder/co-chair, Manu Platt, had always hoped.

“When these kids leave the program and put on their resume that they worked in a lab at Georgia Tech during high school, that’s huge,” says Platt, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering, and diversity director for EBICS (for ‘Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems,’ an NSF Science and Technology Center, or STC, that is supported and resides in the Petit Institute, and is the vehicle through which Project ENGAGES was formed).

“The other thing about this program that really stands out for me is the diversity training, which we take seriously. These students come from schools that are entirely African-American, so, not very diverse. But they are placed in a diverse environment and they interact with intelligent people of all types,” Platt adds. “They interact, and they soon start to realize, ‘these are just human beings, and I’m a human being, and if it’s within a human being to do this, it’s within me to do this.’”

And in Project ENGAGES, they get paid to do it. Each student earns $9 an hour for doing actual lab work – 40 hours a week during the summer, 12 to 15 (or sometimes more) during the school year, time they otherwise would be spending in part-time jobs after school. A paying gig matters to students in economically challenged situations. “I’ve always loved science, so I was interested already when I heard of the opportunity at Georgia Tech,” says Katrina Burch, a rising high school senior beginning her second year in Project ENGAGES. “We actually get to work in a lab and do real research, and it’s a job.”

It’s a job to keep the program going, also. There is the NSF funding for the STC, of course. And Nerem, professor emeritus and founding director of the Petit Institute, has been successful in linking up with financial support from corporate and individual donors, while Platt has been more involved with designing and implementing the program. “Manu is the brains and I’m the brawn,” says Nerem, describing their co-leadership roles. That would probably make Lakeita Servance, who manages Project ENGAGES, the glue that holds it together.

Servance was working as a parent engagement specialist for the Georgia Department of Education, but was looking for an opportunity to interact directly with students in an administrative role. “I honestly didn’t know a lot about Project ENGAGES before applying for the job, but my interest was truly piqued during the interview as I learned how I would be able to play a role in crafting this program,” says Servance, who joined the Petit Institute in May 2013 as the EBICS Education Outreach Manager, just as the first class of Project ENGAGES students were arriving for orientation at Georgia Tech.

“The community of students we’re working with did not see themselves as belonging or fitting in with a place like Georgia Tech, and this program is breaking down that barrier,” Servance adds. “We’re taking students who have traditionally been overlooked and introducing them to new opportunities.”


Over the past year, 10 students from two single-gender Atlanta Public Schools – Coretta Scott King Young Woman’s Leadership Academy and B.E.S.T. Academy – have gotten a head-start on the college lab work experience, while dipping their toes into a bubbling cultural melting pot. Of those 10 students, eight produced research projects that advanced from the Atlanta Regional Science and Engineering Fair to the statewide event. Two of those students (Jovanay Carter and Amadou Bah) advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. And another, Solomon McBride, won a Posse Scholarship to attend Brandeis University.

Before any of that took shape, however, Nerem and Platt had to come up with the clay. They understood the need – more opportunities for underserved minority groups – and necessity begat invention. An important part of the EBICS mission is centered on diversity. The STC brings together scientists from Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and seven other institutions, in a big picture focus to create biomachines that may cure diseases or clean up the environment. But they’re also out to develop the next generation of scientists, with a high emphasis on increasing the recruitment, participation and retention of underrepresented minorities.

Nerem, an associate director for EBICS, had some ideas on what might be the best way to achieve that. “I decided that what was really necessary was to get these students fully immersed in a yearlong experience,” says Nerem, who thought he could sell the program to potential sponsors. “But I knew that this old guy couldn’t be a role model for young African American kids.” So he went after his friend and colleague, Platt, who had first-hand knowledge of college-based high school programs aimed at minority students.

“I was involved in program called FAME, which stands for Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering. This was a weekend program during the school year with a local college, Delaware State University, a historically black school, and it was my entre into engineering,” says Platt, a Georgia Cancer Coalition distinguished scholar, who came South to attend historically black, single-gender Morehouse College, and liked the idea of working with single-gender, minority-serving high schools in the Georgia Tech area.

“I had ideas on how to sculpt the program, what the kids might need. I understand what the teachers and students and parents might be thinking, what it’s like to be brand new here on campus,” Platt says. “Those are elements I considered, and what it would take to integrate them into a lab. It can be a tricky balance.”

There had to be a buy-in not only from the high school kids, but the high school teachers and administration, and from the research teams at Georgia Tech. “The first thing we needed was to build relationships,” Platt says. “Bob Nerem says science is a people business, and it certainly is.”

During the 2012-2013 school year, Platt and his lab did outreach at the participating high schools, brought demonstrations to the schools, invited science classes to the Petit Institute. They were planting the seeds for a sustained kind of engagement because, as Platt says, “we were building up to the first application process, so students would have an idea of what the program was all about – so they would want to apply. Of course, it was serendipitous that the Biomedical Engineering Society conference was in Atlanta around that time. So we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a hands-on demo day and invite local high schools.’”

So they recruited a team of students from the Coulter Department, mostly undergrads, who were in charge, Platt says, students with a heart for service (which are the kinds of students Platt looks for). The BMES conference in November 2012, at the Georgia World Congress Center was a great recruiting tool for the high school program taking shape, grabbing the interest of high school students (and bringing them together with college students just a year or two older, with shared interests and entirely different backgrounds), and also getting the attention of local media – Jim Burress of Atlanta public radio station WABE covered the event, and would follow-up nine months later with an in-depth five-part series on the first summer of Project ENGAGES.

A rigorous interview process – “It was nerve wracking,” says Katrina Burch – resulting in one out of three applicants being chosen for Project ENGAGES. There were 12 students who went through the first “Biocellular Bootcamp,” two weeks of preparation involving hard science and soft skills.

“A big thing we do during boot camp is we build in professional development activities,” says Platt. “We try to address what it will be like to integrate these young, black scientists successfully into a lab, which is not just about knowing science. It’s how you get along with others, so there’s a conflict resolution bit. Last year it was a little more informal.”


This year, Platt was ready with a professional diversity trainer. It was a relationship that began completely organically. “I was on a 17-hour flight to South Africa, and you really get to know someone on a 17-hour flight,” says Platt, who happened to be sitting next to Tamika Curry Smith, whose company, The TCS Group, provides human resources and diversity and inclusion solutions to corporate and non-profit clients. Long story short, Smith conducted two sessions for Project ENGAGES this summer, one with the high school students, and one with the mentors – there’s a candle-lighting ceremony at the end of boot camp in which students and mentors are paired together, after having vetted each other during a “speed dating” session.

“We’re asking our lab people to do more than they were originally interested in doing several years ago, before there was a Project ENGAGES,” Platt says. “You want the graduate student mentors and the postdoc mentors and the high school students to all feel like this is helpful to their progress.”

Of the 12 students who began the program last summer, 10 finished the school year working regular weekly shifts in Georgia Tech labs, run by a handful of professors who share Platt’s interest in outreach. All 10 of those students came back to work full-time schedules this summer. Five of the original 10 recently graduated high school, and will embark on the next stage of their education in the fall. But when the next semester arrives, the other five, all rising high school seniors like Burch, will continue in Project ENGAGES, while a new crew of hopeful young scientists, fresh out of boot camp, discovers the college lab experience.

First, it takes a lab, and a number of bio-researchers have stepped up. During the first year, high school students were working in labs run by Platt, Gang Bao, Tom Barker, Edward Botchwey and Robert Guldberg. A number of other scientists have offered their labs this year, including Ravi Bellamkonda, Ross Ethier, Yuhong Fan, and Hang Lu, among others. And it takes mentors, like postdoc Kristi Porter from Platt’s lab, who worked with two students the first year, and considered it one of those rare win-win experiences.

“I was particularly interested in this program because of my previous volunteer work as a high school college tour organizer and my passion for increasing science and math education for our youth,” says Porter, who mentored Burch and Soloman McBride. “I am incredibly proud of their growth as independent thinkers and scientists. They are dependable, and I am comfortable with giving them independent studies and experiments to perform. Also, since their projects are directly related to my own, we build off of each other's ideas and results. As a result, I’m confident that we will be able to submit our combined efforts for publication by the end of the year.”

Nonetheless, this year it should be a bit easier for mentors, according to Servance. “We found that sometimes two students could be overwhelming for a single mentor, so this year we’ve assigned one student per mentor,” she says. “It means we’ve had to recruit more mentors and of course more labs, but the response has been amazing. These are people who wanted to take on the responsibility.”

Project ENGAGES has expanded its scope this year, also. For one thing, they’re including a new area high school, also in the Atlanta Public School system – KIPP Atlanta Collegiate. There are 10 new students on the biotech track, in addition to the five returning from last year, and they’ve added nine students to what Nerem describes as, “a more traditional engineering track,” developed under the leadership of the Georgia Tech Research Institute.

What it means is more opportunity for more students, which is exactly why Gary Noble supports the program. One of Nerem’s neighbors, Noble used to direct the HIV-AIDS program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now retired, he heard Nerem give a presentation about Project ENGAGES.

“In the simplest of terms, I heard what Bob said and thought this was extremely important. They’re providing opportunities that were otherwise unavailable to brilliant young people, giving them the chance to do great things that might not have been considered feasible before,” Noble says.

For Tom O’Brien, his engagement with Project ENGAGES is like the program itself, that bio-mixture of organic growth with human ingenuity, and generosity. Last August, he happened to be driving to work at Axion Biosystems, where he is president and CEO, when WABE aired one of its pieces on the high school program.

“It piqued my interest. Then I heard the next story in the series,” says O’Brien, whose company is based on technology developed at Georgia Tech. “Then I started asking how we could help. There are talented kids everywhere, and what a great idea this is – exposing kids to a STEM curriculum, giving them the tools they can use to create careers and contribute to science and discovery later on. We’re committed to supporting the program as it continues to grow.”


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