Math skills will ensure that these kids count

July 28, 2004|By Gregory Kane

ONE WAY to end the debate about affirmative action in higher education would be to increase the pool of qualified black applicants to highly selective colleges and universities that require superior SAT scores. Building the math skills of African-American students might be one way to do that.

But black leaders - either elected or the heads of various African-American organizations - don't really want that debate to end. It's easier to get re-elected, or to keep members, by bashing Republicans on the issue of affirmative action.

Charles Johnson-Bey doesn't concern himself with such political discussions. For Johnson-Bey, it's all about the math performance of every American, not just African-Americans. Johnson-Bey, standing in a classroom at the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Engineering Building on Morgan State University's campus last week, lamented what appears to be a grim math future for Americans.

"Most of the Ph.D.s in math are going to foreign students," Johnson-Bey said. "Team China is getting their kids ready. Team Japan is getting their kids ready."

But Johnson-Bey isn't just complaining about the problem. Last week, for the third consecutive year, the 38-year-old electrical engineering professor at Morgan held his one-week math, science and engineering summer camp for 5- to 10-year-olds.

In five short days, Johnson-Bey taught the kids how to read their electric meters at home, how to build circuits and create a programmable robot to do basic movements, how to build a miniature flying saucer. He gave them a rudimentary familiarity with Ohm's law and had them write a short play and program it into a computer to generate a short animated video.

And there were the 25 math problems Johnson-Bey gave the 13 children in the program for homework. It's Johnson-Bey's way of getting Americans ready to answer the challenge of Team China and Team Japan.

"I want to show them the application of math in everything they do," Johnson-Bey said. "I'm trying to get the kids excited about math."

With the excitement Johnson-Bey shows about math, you've probably guessed he's an alumnus of none other than Polytechnic Institute, from which he graduated in 1984. Johnson-Bey went from Poly to the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his bachelor's degree in electrical and computer engineering.

He received his doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Delaware and had job stints with Motorola's research and development department in Chicago and for the Corning Co. He returned to Baltimore because, Johnson-Bey said, "I wanted to come back home."

Johnson-Bey's earliest Baltimore home was in the heart of one of East Baltimore's most poverty-stricken, crime-ridden and predominantly African-American communities. He grew up in the neighborhood of Caroline and Chase streets, and went to Roland Park Middle School before going to Poly.

"I was one of those kids who got written off," Johnson-Bey said, primarily because of the neighborhood where he grew up. Even his mother's friends scoffed at his chances of succeeding at Hopkins, where the academic competition was - and remains to this day - stiff, and students are hard-pressed to graduate even in four years.

Johnson-Bey did it in three years.

And, if I read him right, he has the same plans for his son, 7-year-old Kaleem, who spent his third year at the math-science-engineering camp last week. Kaleem is being home-schooled now, but, like his dad, will attend Poly in about, oh, seven years. And, like his dad, Kaleem wants to be an engineer. It's a good thing Kaleem likes math. He figures other youngsters who don't "are missing lots of fun."

Ten-year-old Noelle Friend likes math too, especially long division. The fifth-grader at Rockburn Elementary School in Elkridge also likes computers. But she has no plans for an engineering career.

"I want to be a pediatrician so I can help children," said Noelle, who attended the camp for her first time.

In his own way, Johnson-Bey is also helping children. And there are those who help the helper. Wal-Mart and Radio Shack provided an assist by selling, at a discount, materials Johnson-Bey needed for his program. Others helped by spreading news about the camp, using the tried-and-true method of word-of-mouth.

"I really haven't had to publicize," Johnson-Bey said. "I have eight kids on a waiting list to get in."

Those children might be in next summer's class, which Johnson-Bey said may expand to two or three weeks. The cost, $100 per child, is not prohibitive, except maybe in the most impoverished areas of Baltimore.

Still, it's those city kids Johnson-Bey wants to help the most.

"That," he said, "is where the need is."

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