Envoys for Engineering

 

An ambitious program from the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering is launching Cleveland public school students toward STEM careers. 

By Harlan Spector 

In 2003, Professor David Schiraldi and colleagues in the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering were making plans to address a lack of minority students in undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes. Case had landed a $40 million, 10-year grant from National Science Foundation for a science and technology center directed by Professor Eric Baer. Schiraldi’s role under the grant was to develop future scientists. He wanted to focus on high school students from Cleveland neighborhoods. But he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. 

At a fundraiser for Shaker Heights schools, where his children attended, an auction item caught his eye -- breakfast with Jane Campbell, Cleveland’s then mayor. 

“I thought this is a way to get to the city and school district,” Schiraldi recalled. “I wanted to have face time with the mayor. I spent the entire auction night standing there, and every time somebody upped my bid, I upped it again.” 

He spent $400 of his own money for breakfast with the mayor. 

Over coffee and croissants, he pitched the idea. Mayor Campbell was receptive, and she turned it over to an aide. From there, Schiraldi met with a district official in charge of STEM curriculum, and came up with a plan to recruit talented students from Cleveland high schools. 

“He said we want you to work with the neediest schools,” Schiraldi said. “Places where nobody goes to college. You can make it happen where somebody does go to college.” 

The challenge was greater than Schiraldi realized. As he pored over student transcripts, he noticed that no students at Cleveland’s Glenville High School on the East Side had taken physics. He asked the principal about it. 

“He said the school didn’t offer it. They had offered it, but nobody would take it. There’s zero percent chance that somebody who didn’t take physics in high school will go on to become an engineer.” 

The school didn’t have a chemistry lab, either. The lack of sciences underscored how disadvantaged many Cleveland student are compared to high school students from wealthier districts and private schools. 

To address the academic gap, Schiraldi and his team worked science and math coursework into the curriculum of the fledgling project, which became known as the Polymer Envoys Program. The first class of Envoys started in 2006. It became a key education program of the NSF-funded Science and Technology Center for Layered Polymeric Systems – CLiPS for short. 

Students enter Envoys the summer before their high school sophomore year, and spend three years engaged in laboratory research, each paired with a graduate student who serves as a mentor. The Envoys spend six weeks during the summer and five hours a week during the school year working in the lab, taking coursework and undergoing professional development and college prep training. The program also pays a stipend to students. Schiraldi said the stipend is critical because many students would otherwise need jobs that would interfere with Envoys training. 

“The idea is, if you’re doing this really cool technology, it’s a great platform by which to involve young people in STEM fields,” Schiraldi said. “It’s not just boring science class. It’s plastic lasers, it’s clean water, it’s blue ray discs -- things kids can relate to.” 

Since its inception, 70 students from Cleveland and East Cleveland have come through the program. Fifty of them have graduated (10 are currently enrolled in Envoys). All 50 graduates have gone onto college – many at Case, but also at Ohio State University, Vanderbilt, Stanford, Columbia and other schools. 

Forty-four of the 50 Envoy graduates have entered STEM fields. 

“It takes an incredible commitment for these high school kids,” said Pam Glover, who manages the program as executive director for education and planning for CLiPS. “They have intelligence and they have potential. They just didn’t have the opportunities in their schools. They didn’t have the advantages some students have. We give them that.” 

Current Envoys students say they appreciate the opportunity, which they suspect may be life changing. 

“This is the best program I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve been in a lot of programs,” said Analisa Pellot, a senior at Horizon Science Academy in Cleveland. “When I first came here, I had no experience working in a lab. It just opened up my eyes. It’s just amazing to be able to do this. It’s gotten me more interested in biochemistry, in working in a science field.” 

Jose Diaz Jr, a senior at Cleveland’s Max Hayes High School, expects Envoys to launch him toward engineering school. 

“I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t even know existed,” he said. “This has been a huge transition for me. I feel like I’m getting a lot of skills I would not have learned at Max Hayes. I want to go to college and become a chemical engineer.” 

Mason Ali, a senior at Cleveland's MC2 STEM High School, feels the pull toward graphic arts. But that’s OK, too. 

“It’s a program that has allowed me to expand my mind, into calculus and the sciences,” he said. “It’s given me an opportunity to experience what a job will be like. So I’m really appreciative. I plan to work on computers as a graphic designer. My backup is polymer science.” 

Taneisha Deans from Glenville High School was one of the first to graduate from the Envoys program, and she was the first to advance to graduate school. She now works as a PhD research scientist at DSM in Michigan. Another Envoys alum, Santiago Chabrier of Max Hayes High school, is a chemical engineer for Sherwin Williams. And another, Terrence Mathis of Shaw High school in East Cleveland, is an engineer at PMI Industries in Cleveland. 

Envoys graduate Arik Stewart, a computer science major at Case, said the program exposed him to polymer research. It was intimidating at first, but working with polymer aerogel in Schiraldi’s lab was a turning point in his life. The lightweight gel is strong and flexible insulator. Stewart was involved with testing different compositions of aerogel, and he was amazed by its versatility. 

“It’s about all the possibilities you can do with it,” he said. “I was thinking about laptops. This material can be used in laptop components. That was the first thing I thought of.” 

But the Envoys program was about more than just polymers, he said. He learned how to organize his work, how to create a resume, make presentations and fill out college applications. 

One-on-one relationships with graduate students play a large role in the program’s success. 

“The graduate students are not just teachers, they’re role models,” Glover said. “They’re mentors, they’re surrogate parents to an extent, they’re big brothers and sisters.” 

After 17 years at Case, Schiraldi is considering retirement. A table in his office is covered with large plastic bags filled with lightweight brown and green nuggets that from a distance might be mistaken for some sort of puffed snack food. It’s actually aerogel cat litter. Schiraldi came up with idea one day after lugging a 40-pound bag of cat litter from the pet store. He and a former student are patent holders for the featherweight litter, which is one-tenth the weight of cat litter and absorbs just as much liquid. 

He is proud of Envoys but concerned about its future. The 10-year, NSF grant expired in 2016. They have kept the program going with generous alumni gifts and other contributions. A crowdfunding campaign sponsored by the Case Alumni Association in February 2017 raised about $6,000, with the help of Macromolecular Science and Engineering alumni. 

They are trying to figure out how to raise about $150,000 a year. The money pays for a full-time employee, student stipends, summer instruction and other program costs. 

The full-time employee is Tryreno Sowell, education director of the program. Schiraldi tells the story about how Sowell once took a vacation day to help a student graduate move to Eastern Michigan University. The student didn’t know how to get to Michigan by bus. 

“Our guy did that for this student,” Schiraldi said. “When he told us about it, we got a little teary-eyed. We told him to at least turn in an expense report for the mileage, and he said, ‘No, this one is on me.’ That’s who we are supporting.” 

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