January 11, 2016

Professor Charles Kim, mechanical engineering (left), helps summer campers test robotic gripper designs.

Foundation grant allows aspiring engineers from the Motor City to sample the campus scene at Bucknell.

By Christina Masciere Wallace

If you were a teenager who attended an under-resourced urban high school, didn’t know anyone who’d gone to college, and had never traveled beyond your hometown, spending time on a campus like Bucknell’s might not even be on your radar.

Asia Jefferson, a senior at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, intends to be the first in her family to attend a four-year college. But she had never been on an airplane or spent time away from her family before traveling to Bucknell this summer to attend the College of Engineering’s teen summer camp.

“The camp made the whole college experience seem more obtainable for me,” Jefferson says. “I thought, ‘This is something I could actually do — staying far from home, being on a schedule and making sure I got everywhere on time.’ I honestly didn’t want it to end.”

Thanks to this opportunity spurred by Mike ’91 and Laureen Leptinsky Costa ’90, she was able to gain the confidence she needed to move forward. She’s now excited about computer and biomedical engineering and thinking of applying to schools beyond the Detroit area.

As an investment adviser to the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, Mike was already familiar with Skillman’s mission to help youth there expand their educational and career opportunities in ways that support the city’s economic comeback. He and Laureen learned about the College of Engineering’s efforts to recruit and enroll underserved youth from urban areas in its summer camp.

The couple envisioned a partnership between the foundation and the University and set about arranging a connection. The result: a $100,000 grant from the foundation that allowed 21 Detroit students to enjoy a week of faculty-led classes and activities in June. Remaining funds could continue the relationship in the future.

“This was a way to help these kids build their intellectual capital and know what it’s like to live on a college campus,” says Mike. “Going for a week in the summer to a place outside of their local community broadens their view. It helps them to say, ‘Yes, college is for me.’”

Tonya Allen, president and CEO of Skillman, agrees. “We liked the high quality and STEM emphasis of the camp and the opportunity for kids to leave Detroit and get exposure to other young people,” she says. “When our young people have these travel experiences, we find that they are far more anxious to achieve and explore the world. We want them to expand their horizons and become contributors to Detroit. It helps them and fuels our recovery as a city.”

Jefferson came to camp with other members of the school’s robotics team to see if they liked engineering. “The first thing they told us when we got to Bucknell is that just because you’re good at math and science doesn’t mean you’d be a good engineer,” she says.

“The professors and counselors were so welcoming, and it was great to be exposed to all the fields they touched upon, even those I’m not looking to pursue,” Jefferson adds.

The Skillman Foundation is the latest group to partner with the engineering camp, which prioritizes access for under-represented students. Their participation has grown steadily, mirroring the camp’s overall enrollment growth from 26 students in 2008 to last summer’s 185. About one-quarter of the most recent participants attended camp through special partnerships created with under-resourced schools in Long Island, Baltimore, Los Angeles and now Detroit. (Tuition for the Long Island teens, who attend the Magnet Academy at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, N.Y., is raised through a private gala. Fees for the Baltimore and Los Angeles campers are supported by Bucknell engineering faculty who choose to teach at the camp pro bono.)

Professor Erin Jablonski, chemical engineering, who founded and directs the camp, is in talks to add a New York City group next summer. She notes that the Skillman campers seemed reluctant to say goodbye.

“For many of them, their last class was the one where we use liquid nitrogen to make ice cream,” she says with a smile. “That’s a hard session to leave.”

This story first appeared in Bucknell Magazine. To read more from the magazine, click here.