by Michael Bradley
Special to the Delaware Business Times
Dr. Joan Coker had the summer after sixth grade planned perfectly. She would play outside with her sisters and friends. She would sleep late and delight in having no classwork to worry her. And she would watch TV. Plenty of TV.
Then, her mother received the brochure about FAME, and Coker’s summer dreams were covered in nightmare paint.
“I felt horrible,” she says.
The Forum to Advance Minorities in Engineering was just getting started, and it offered students with interests in math and the sciences the chance to spend parts of their summers learning about those subjects, as well as take field trips to labs and plants that constructed, experimented on and assembled a variety of products. The long-run benefits were obvious. But for a sixth-grader’s summer, it was a disaster.
“My sisters were watching soap operas and playing, and I would come home to tell them about my day, and they would say, ‘Shhhh, we’re watching soap operas,’’’ Coker says.
Coker may not have received the attention she wanted from her sisters, but as she went through the FAME program that summer, she met and bonded with a group of students with interests similar to hers. She learned a lot and fed the passion for science that would ultimately lead her to medical school and her work as a physician specializing in ear, nose and throat disorders. Yes, the bus rides were hot and uncomfortable, and the labs were sometimes stifling. But the work she did and watched “was awesome,” she says.
For 40 years, FAME has helped young people like Coker nurture their interests in arenas of math and science. Though its overriding goal is to help guide future engineers, FAME exists to provide skill development for students and to put them on the path to college and success after graduation. It has created a curriculum that provides the tools for young people to meet high expectations and to thrive in whatever field they choose. Through its summer programs and instruction during the school year, FAME has served more than 7,000 students. As it moves forward, it aims to reach many more.
“We want to excite, engage and educate students,” says Don Baker, FAME’s CEO and an alumnus the program. “We want to stimulate change. We have a responsibility to give back and see if we can engage all students.”
Baker’s story is similar to Coker’s. In the mid-1980s, he was anticipating an idyllic, lazy summer when his mother and father “ripped [him] away from a summer of frolicking freedom” and enrolled him in FAME’s five-week summer program, because “they wanted to produce someone who would be a productive citizen and a scholar.”
It worked. Baker went on Morehouse College, where he majored in political science and pre-law. But as he completed his schooling over the next several years, he was able to work with students like him and learn from minority teachers, something he had not experienced to that point in his academic career.
“During my schooling experience, I was the only African-American in my classes, which were the top classes in my schools,” Baker says. “I didn’t see people who looked like me. Going from that environment to one where there were girls and minorities on the same wavelength as me was very helpful.”
Thanks to support from myriad corporate partners, such as DuPont, Boeing and Verizon, FAME has been able to work throughout its existence with high-achieving students. As the coming years unfold, Baker wants to expand the reach to provide instruction and opportunity for even more young people. The first 35-plus years of FAME’s existence were geared toward serving high-achieving students who needed at least a 3.0 GPA and had already demonstrated a high aptitude for math and science. According to Baker, 99 percent of those participants went on to college, with the others generally choosing some form of military service. In 2012, Baker wrote a white paper, which looked at ways to expand FAME’s reach. A year later, the “STEMulate Change” initiative began.
“We wanted to see how we could get other minority groups to be excited about STEM,” Baker says. “We need to serve as many students as we can, including the C student and the D student.”
The program is designed to reach kids as early as third grade and can travel to schools, clubs and organizations, all the better to fire the interests of those who might not be exposed to STEM subject matter. It’s hands-on, “blowing stuff up” kind of work that will generate enthusiasm for a larger number of students. Through its partnership with the Red Clay School District and A.I. du Pont High School, FAME can serve students from a variety of schools. By the year 2020, Baker wants the organization to serve an additional 20,000 students.
That would be great news for E.J. Bliey, who teaches Microsoft programs to IT professionals with Software Services of Delaware. He spent four years in FAME — including during summers — and enjoyed every moment.
“There was not one minute where I thought [FAME instruction] was eating into my play time,” Bliey says. “The students who took part in it were already studious and doing well in school, so this was great.
“During the summers, we took field trips to companies, and we got to see someone drop a flower into liquid nitrogen. It was exciting stuff. Regular school should take a page or 10 from FAME and try to create an exciting mix of practical and theoretical.”
As it moves forward and embraces even more students, FAME will make sure there are plenty of fun experiments while building a foundation of skills that will help young people move forward. Baker wants to teach test-taking skills, expose students to American history beyond the textbooks and help create a set of expectations that puts even more kids on the path to college and professional development. Thanks to its copyrighted curriculum and intellectual property it has licensed, FAME can spread its program nationwide, expanding its reach and its revenues and serving more people than ever.
Even if that hurts soap opera ratings.