Middle-school boys participate in the Minority Male Makers summer program at Morgan State University in Baltimore. (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)
On the second floor of Morgan State University's engineering building, Jacob Walker, 12, is putting the finishing touches on a ruler he's just created.
Not yet an actual ruler. One he's designing on the computer. He just needs to add his initials — then it's time to produce it on a 3-D printer.
Jacob starts seventh grade in the fall and has big dreams. Building this ruler is all part of the plan.
"When I was a child," he says, "I loved to play with Legos, and it inspired me to be an engineer when I get older."
Jacob is one of some 50 boys in this free, four-week camp at Morgan State. It's called the Minority Male Makers Program — paid for by Verizon.
Students learn to code, design apps, create products — even build a business plan. After they design their rulers, they start pitching ideas: a candy-selling business, a website for kids having trouble studying, an app to find your lost keys.
"We knew that they had these types of capabilities," says LaDawn Partlow, a lecturer at Morgan State, who oversees the program. "It just was about providing them the opportunities and the resources and the outlets to bring it out of them."
To find students, Partlow and her team reached out to local middle-school principals and counselors with this simple request:
"We want students who seem like they may need more of a challenge, who on a daily basis may seem a little removed from class," she says. "They may be bored."
They aren't now. Partlow says some of these kids know the material better than she does, but they're still young and impressionable. And that matters.
"Why not start with the middle schools," she says. "That's where you want to grab the attention of the students. After that they've pretty much formed their own path."
Another benefit of the program: Current Morgan State students work as teaching aides and mentors. They're not just there to help students with the work. They're role models, showing these kids what's possible: college and a career in engineering, math, or tech.
"I relate a lot to these kids," says mentor Chris Gaines, 26. "There's no limits for them, and that's what I want to share with them."
Gaines is back at Morgan State earning a math degree — after working for several years as an electrical engineer.
"From my experience in the industry, there's not many young men of color," Gaines says. At work, it sometimes got uncomfortable when talk turned to stories of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown.
"I was the only young black man in my previous job," Gaines says. "I just had to speak up for these young fellows. So they could understand my perspective. Instead of arguing, I said, 'How about I just contribute and do my part?' And that's why I'm here."
Though summer classes wrapped up this week, the program runs for two years.
Jacob Walker and his classmates will come back to campus for several Saturdays throughout the school year. Mentor Chris Gaines says he'll be there to answer questions about engineering, college — and life.
Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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