Young businessmen presented their products before their peers Tuesday in a classroom at Morgan State University, giving pitches about features and attributes, and fielding questions in sessions that resembled episodes of the reality television show "Shark Tank."
When they were done, the youngsters — all students in grades six through nine — had no investors. But they had learned something about business, and about the potential for their own futures.
The students are participants in Minority Male Makers, a program that gives middle school boys from minority groups free, hands-on experience with projects in science, technology, engineering, and math — the STEM fields.
The program is funded by the Verizon Foundation and hosted at Morgan and three other historically black schools: Kentucky State University, North Carolina A&T and Jackson State in Mississippi. J. Kemi Ladeji-Osias, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, designed the program's branch at Morgan.
"Minorities are significantly underrepresented in STEM ... especially as you go higher up [in academia]," she said. She said many boys, in particular, struggle academically between kindergarten and grade 12, leading to lower graduation rates.
Students attend Minority Male Makers at Morgan for two summers. Each includes four weeks of summer classes, plus additional classes and mentoring during the school year. The program at Morgan focuses on STEM-related pursuits such as app design and development, computer programming, basic coding, 3D design and modeling and robotics.
Students start their day at 8:30 a.m. with a math session, followed by 3D modeling and app development until 4 p.m. Classes are taught by Morgan professors and are aided by six mentors — minority undergraduate and graduate students who guide and support the youngsters.
Sessions place an emphasis on collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving — and business. Ladeji-Osias called entrepreneurship "the glue" of the program.
In a computer lab on Tuesday, students presented ideas, cost estimates and marketing strategies for products they created — including a 3D-printed gadget to find lost keys and an app that generates recipes made of healthy ingredients already in your kitchen.
Mentors and other students fired off questions: Do you know if there are similar products on the market? How did you make this? How did you come up with the logo?
Ladeji-Osias said the program comes at a crucial period in participant's lives.
"Middle school is a time when you start to feel like you're on the cusp of adulthood. They start to define who they are," she said. "We're seeing some of them starting to think of engineering and science as a possibility."
James Hayes-Barber, a Morgan senior who serves as a program mentor, said some of the students are so enthusiastic they spend their free time experimenting with the software programs.
When students feel inspired, he said, they feel confident participating in every step of the creation process, from programming and writing a business plan to creating a 3D model and pitching it to investors.
"We're putting the power in their own hands," he said.
Hayes-Barber said visits from professionals of color — in person and over Skype — makes STEM more accessible to the students.
"People that look like them have been creating, and they can continue that legacy from their own mind, even at their age," he said.
Ladeji-Osias said students were selected for the program from schools within a three-mile radius of Morgan. She said all applicants were accepted.
Sidney Moore, a 12-year-old student at Monarch Academy charter school, said he has mixed feelings about the last day of the summer program on Friday.
"One half of you is like 'Hallelujah, let's go home and sleep!'" he said. "And one is like "No, I want to make more apps.'"