Black engineers conference puts focus on minority youth


Fifth-grader Brianna Hollimon thinks she'd make a good lawyer when she grows up because she's effective at defending her friends when they get picked on.

She's also thinking about becoming a doctor because she likes to help people. But she also might go into nursing.

"Just in case I don't make it to doctor, that's my backup plan," said Brianna, who goes to Cross Country Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.

On her days off, she'll act.

"That's what I'll do in my spare time when I'm not in surgery," she said.

And a career in science?

"I've never thought about that," she said.

Organizers of the 16th Annual Black Engineer of the Year Awards Conference, in town through tomorrow, said that many minority children like Brianna don't consider careers in math, science, engineering and technology.

Yesterday, the conference opened with a day of hands-on learning for kids aimed at changing that.

Career Communications Group Inc. of Baltimore, which publishes U.S. Black Engineer & Information Technology Magazine, started the conference because so few minorities were entering technical fields.

For instance, 6 percent of engineering bachelor's degrees were awarded to blacks in the 1999-2000 academic year, the latest statistics available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Much of the conference focuses on students.

"It's to get the kids exposed," said Ana Bertrand, conference coordinator. "We try to get them young when they're at an impressionable age."

Throughout the conference, college students will sell themselves to recruiters from top companies, such as IBM and the Boeing Co.

Today, middle and high school students from around the state will converge at the Baltimore Convention Center, where they are to conduct experiments, talk to universities and colleges about getting into school and hear minorities from the field talk about their experiences.

"It's the only conference that exposes them to individuals that have accomplished some of these things," said Michelle D. Wilson, Career Communications' director of outreach. "You don't always get to see the black astronaut or get to meet a four star general. Kids actually get to see those role models in fields that they may only read about or that they may not even know exist."

Yesterday, Brianna, 9, was among 400 elementary and middle school pupils from six counties who gathered at the National Aquarium, where they played with baby diamondback terrapins, learned how oysters breed, walked through a simulated rain forest and learned how to train dolphins.

The kids were all part of the Maryland Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program.

Brianna listened intently as an aquarist, a scientist who works with water animals and plants, talked about animals such as seahorses that live in the aquarium. Brianna said she had never heard of an aquarist.

"I thought he was talking about the birthday sign," she said after his speech.

In the rain forest, she ran from exhibit to exhibit pointing at birds. She said she didn't realize the climate was like it was.

"I've seen the rain forest on television but didn't realize it was so humid," she said fanning her face with her hand.

Brianna later rested her head on her best friend's shoulder as aquarium workers told the children how oysters are becoming endangered by pollution and disease. She laughed as her schoolmates dressed in oyster, fish and sun costumes to explain how an ecosystem operates.

At the end of the day, Brianna still talked about becoming a doctor or a nurse. But she said a scientist might not be such a bad idea, either.

"It sounds interesting," she said. "You get to experiment with things, and that sounds fun."

The conference will end tomorrow with an awards banquet honoring the winner of the "Black Engineer of the Year Award" and 47 other award winners.

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