There are more than 40 mentors at the Marshall Math Science Academy in Harrisburg this week, helping almost 300 Harrisburg School District third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders learn about STEM topics.

But the learning goes both ways. The college-age mentors soak up the enthusiasm and curiosity of their young counterparts. Some are gaining experience that will help them in non-STEM careers.

It's all a part of SEEK, the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids academic program, sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers. The mentors are members of NSBE, according to Ernest Maynard, SEEK coordinator based in Alexandria, Virginia. It's the first time SEEK has held an event in Harrisburg, and the three-week program wraps up this week.

STEM is a newish buzzword that stands for science, technology, engineering and math. They are areas of study in which minorities and young women are traditionally underrepresented. African-Americans are in the single digits percentage-wise as it relates to number of engineers in the United States.

It was easy to imagine that statistic changing as I walked through the halls and classrooms of Marshall last week. Youngsters were working on a variety of projects, including glider competitions, gravity cruisers and fuel cell learning.

One fuel cell group was discussing how to propel a car using water molecules. It was a bit over my head – a fact I am more than proud to admit. They quickly and proudly stated the National Society of Black Engineers' mission statement: "to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community."

They were engaged in learning. Sure, they mugged for me, the stranger in the room. They wanted to be in the video I was shooting. But they also really enjoyed working on skits and painting their projects and explaining scientific theories. For a group of youngsters that age, there was a balance of seriousness and studiousness with some silliness.

That's a tribute in no small part to the mentors. They come from all over the country, including Penn State, Spelman College, California State University-Fullerton, Jackson State University, Delaware State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Norfolk State University, Tennessee State University, City College of New York, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

"You're inspiring people to do things they didn't know they could do," said Brittany Boyd, who attended The Ohio State University and St. Joseph's in Philadelphia.

"It gives me the opportunity to see how different students learn and then apply that in my future career. I eventually want to be a teacher, so I have that experience working in the classroom working with children during the summer," she said.

But Boyd also touched on a common theme: That SEEK allows children to see that they can be "engineers or doctors or scientists or anything they would like to be," she said.

Children need opportunities. They need to see that people can excel. They need role models, and that's no small part of the SEEK program.

Tolu Babalola, a recent Cal State-Fullerton grad, is outspoken about his role as a mentor. He studied racial politics and the educational system and plans to seek a master's degree.

"I'm a soldier in the fight for equality in our educational system or bridging that gap in the United States educational system with the privileged and the underprivileged," he said. "I do think this program is necessary for children who don't have the means not only financially but also in terms of people who get to push them, for them to realize their potential."

He said that education is a "major civil rights issue of our time."

Some mentors, like Josh Davis from the University of Arkansas, will become an engineer one day.

"I liked taking things apart when I was little even though I didn't know what I was doing," he said.

The mentors bond with each other and the youngsters, he said.

"They come together, work together with people they never met before, to touch these children and show them that even though you might not have been brought up in the best of neighborhoods, it's a way out, and that's through knowledge. ... Knowledge is power when applied with understanding," he said.

The mentors are a bridge between companies who are hiring young minority engineers and the elementary school students, he said.

"You're helping out the next generation, which is basically what they (the companies) are doing by giving you a job. You're the generation after them. So we're just reaching back and showing them we need to bring up these people as well," he said.

To help facilitate the hiring of young African-American job candidates, the Martin Luther King Leadership Development Institute and PennLive/The Patriot-News are sponsoring the recruiting reception to be held in the Morrison Gallery, Penn State Harrisburg Library, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. June 25. Local engineering firms are encouraged to send representatives.

It would be great for the Harrisburg area to keep some of these fine mentors in our community.

I'm a soldier in the fight for equality in our educational system or bridging that gap in the United States educational system with the privileged and the underprivileged." - Tola Babalola