The story on Fox 5 News was an attention-grabber: a young man was telling TV viewers about his experience as a student at George Washington University (GW) this fall. His age, 14, and his race, African American, were noteworthy, and so was his attire. He wore a shirt boldly emblazoned with the letters “NSBE.”
The 14-year-old, Curtis Lawrence III of Washington, D.C., is a phenomenal academic success story, but he’s hardly in it alone. His father, Curtis Jr., and his mother, Malene — both accomplished educators — and his younger brother, Corey, are also influential characters in the tale, as is the National Society of Black Engineers.
Malene is founder and advisor of the DMV NSBE Jr. Chapter, which is based on the campus of Howard University. Launched in 2018, DMV NSBE Jr. already has 200 members: students in grades K–12 from the D.C. metropolitan area. The chapter’s year-round program aims to stimulate its students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and includes computer coding instruction, Mandarin and Spanish classes as well as competitions in robotics, wind energy, math and designing cities of the future.
Malene’s sons, Curtis and Corey, are both members of the group, and both are students at School Without Walls High School, which is located on George Washington University’s campus. Earlier, when the Lawrence family lived in San Antonio, Texas, the brothers were members of the San Antonio City Wide NSBE Jr. Chapter, from 2013 to 2016. Curtis, now a junior at School Without Walls, is the youngest student ever to enroll in GW’s Early College Program, which gives School Without Walls students the opportunity to take courses at the university and earn an associate’s degree.

‘Like a Family’

Curtis’ busy schedule now has him rising at 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday to take college courses — Calculus I, Astronomy, University Writing, and African Americans and Africa — and one high school course, Physical Education, at School Without Walls. College life has been somewhat of a challenge, he admits, but “not as hard as I thought it would be…. It just requires a lot of time management, because I’m getting a lot more work than I did at School Without Walls.”
“I’m still the youngest in all my classes,” adds Curtis, who skipped the 4th grade in San Antonio because of his academic prowess and took the SAT in 7th grade, at age 10. “So that hasn’t changed. I don’t really feel any different.”
Despite his heavy course load, Curtis says his social life hasn’t suffered. He looks forward to having lunch with his schoolmates in the Early College Program and being with his friends on weekends during his NSBE chapter activities.
“It’s often like that in NSBE. It’s just like a family sometimes. I used to have a lot of friends in NSBE in San Antonio as well,” says Curtis, who enjoys computer science, plans to get his next academic degree from an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) and has his sights set on a career in paleontology.
Corey, also a stellar student, has loved astronomy since his father read the book “Goodnight Moon” to him when he was a child. Later inspired by the career of Neil deGrasse Tyson, he now plans to become an astrophysicist. He says he has enjoyed his involvement with NSBE, too, as well as the bonus of having an older brother to tutor him in STEM.
“I like the robotics and math competitions. They’re really cool. And I love the national competitions (at NSBE’s Annual Convention),” says Corey, who also plans to enroll in an HBCU. He and his brother have now attended five NSBE conventions. Corey recently took the SAT for the second time at the age of 13 and scored 1070.

A Way of Life

Malene says her experience with her sons in the San Antonio City Wide chapter inspired her to found DMV NSBE Jr. after the family’s move to the East Coast.
“I was inspired by Devethia and Carl Thompson,” the founders and leaders of the San Antonio chapter, Malene says, “and I still communicate with them. They are the reason why I started the DMV NSBE Jr. chapter when we moved to D.C.: because of their example and because of what they did in that chapter, things like exposing Curtis to the SATs so early (through the Duke University Talent Identification Program, TIP) and boosting their math skills through NSBE’s TMAL (Try-Math-A-Lon) program and the MATHCOUNTS program.”
Malene says working with other NSBE Jr. parents to lead the DMV NSBE Jr. chapter is a passion and a challenge for her.
“It becomes a way of life,” she says. “A large part of my day is focused on NSBE, more than it is on my paying job (as an English and literacy tutor). I think it’s because I’m an educator by profession. I’m just looking at how can I help positively affect the lives of students outside of the school.”
Her husband, Curtis Jr., has a long record of success in leading K–12 schools in underserved communities. Now commuting monthly between Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he is executive principal of IDEA Public Schools, he also remains very much involved in his sons’ education. As the main planner of the family vacations, for example, he has included visits to 53 college campuses, to help his children visualize their academic futures. He and Malene provide their children with the discipline and structure he learned long ago was essential to the success of his students, Curtis Jr. says.
He’s also much involved in his sons’ activities with NSBE Jr., a program he first encountered as a pre-engineering student at Brooklyn Technical High School, in his hometown of New York.

Amazing Experience

“We were looking for some African-American organizations to get involved with for our children while we were there in San Antonio, which has a very small African-American population…. When we learned there was a NSBE Jr. chapter there, we signed them up…,” says Curtis Jr. “I loved the fact that we had all of these kids of color there involved in engineering, in computer science, in fields where we’re often consumers but not the creators and producers. And I loved the fact that SAT math was one of their required courses.”
“Once we moved to D.C., I was able to go to a NSBE convention, and it was an amazing experience,” he continues. “The greatest thing about it was going not just as a parent but as a high school VEX Robotics coach and the (Try-Math-A-Lon) coach. Coaching my sons and their peers, watching them grow over the course of the year and having them take second place in the nation in many of the high school robotics categories, in our first year as a NSBE chapter, was a great experience.”
His son Curtis III is not shy about crediting NSBE Jr. for his current success, and he encourages others to take full advantage of the program’s opportunities.
“NSBE is a great way for kids from underrepresented communities to have exposure to engineering, even if they’re not going to pursue that as a career,” says the future scientist. “The kids can have fun, meet new people and be mentored by STEM professionals, compete nationally, build robots, build cities in Future City and wind turbines for KidWind or build things out of LEGOS, without having to consider engineering as a career.”
“What motivates me to continue my work with NSBE is the (benefit) that I know it will have on generations to come,” says Malene. “Knowing the positive effects NSBE has had on my own sons, it would be stingy of me to keep that to myself, knowing how things are for (African-American) children as a whole in this society. Fulfilling NSBE’s mission ‘to increase the numbers of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community’ is what it’s all about.”