Engineering the legends of tomorrow
Pitt NSBE and the Josh Gibson Foundation partner to create the STEAM Program at Pittsburgh Classical Academy
Sean Gibson won’t allow his family’s legacy to disappear.
Gibson serves as the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, named after his great grandfather, a legendary baseball player for the Homestead Grays whose accomplishments in the Negro Leagues were unprecedented but mostly undocumented. The foundation focuses on creating access to education to Pittsburgh students – the type of access Gibson’s great grandfather never had as a Black man growing up in the early 20th century.
The foundation has been building partnerships throughout Pittsburgh to expand that access. Just in the past few years, Sean and the foundation has been working with the University of Pittsburgh’s National Society of Black Engineers, an organization dedicated to increasing the number and success of Black engineers, to build the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) Program for eighth grade boys at Pittsburgh Classical Academy, a magnet school that’s part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools District.
Gibson said the goal of the foundation is to carry on the legacy of greatness and accomplishment embodied by Josh by developing and supporting programs for children to reach their full potential and ability.
He hopes students on each side can see a little of themselves in each other.
“We want the kids to be engaged and learn about engineering, but we also want these kids to get some life skills,” Gibson said. “Some of these kids come from a single parent household or live in low-income communities. Some of the Pitt NSBE students did, too, and we want them to see a Black engineering student from a similar background and reflect on that.”
A shared goal
Jared Coffelt, a recent graduate of the Swanson School of Engineering, met Sean Gibson while participating in Pitt’s Alternative Break program his first year at Pitt. They found a common goal for their organizations: helping students.
Coffelt acted as a liaison for Pitt NSBE and the foundation. He ran his campaign to be the organization’s TORCH Chair with the partnership of the Josh Gibson Foundation at its center. He said he wanted to help further the relationship of Pitt NSBE and its surrounding community, noting that he always had a passion for working in schools. Coffelt was the first student to fully engage in the program.
The STEAM Program runs from October to May; it was online for two years because of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns, but resumed being in-person for the 2022-2023 school year. Pitt NSBE members introduce students to engineering concepts and assign projects and homework. Pittsburgh Classical Academy students are also expected to create their own assignments throughout the year.
Coffelt said one of his favorite lessons he designed for students was building a catapult; however, it was his one-on-one interactions with students that solidified his passion for the program.
“I’ve always wanted to help people when I was growing up,” Coffelt said. “The need to help others ended up translating into teaching and mentoring, so I started visiting classrooms and meeting with students. Because of that experience, I’ve been able to empathize with others in a better, more organic way.”
Changing what engineers look like
There’s more than just the academic side of the program. Pitt NSBE students serve a simple, but critical function: being Black students studying engineering.
For 2022, the University reported that out of 2,764 students enrolled at the Swanson School, 118 of those students identified as Black or African American. Black and African American student enrollment has steadily increased over the past few years, but is still lower than white, Asian, and international students. Notably however, Black and African American students have the second highest graduation rate among four-year engineering students at the Swanson School this past year.
Josh Gibson, often referred to as “The Black Babe Ruth,” never made it past the ninth grade.
Yvette Moore, director of equity and inclusion for undergraduate strategic initiatives and the advisor for Pitt NSBE, said it’s important for Black students to recognize Gibson’s influence on Pittsburgh, and they’re now a part of it.
“It gives our college students the will and the know that there is a legacy in this city, and it’s their responsibility to continue that legacy for the next generation of Josh Gibsons,” Moore said.
The majority of students at Pittsburgh Classical Academy are Black, and as Principal Valerie Merlo says, it’s critical for Black individuals to have access to STEAM education.
“These are careers for their future,” Merlo said. “These students will be our scientists, inventors, engineers, designers and doctors. Black people, in particular, are underrepresented in these careers because we do not engage them in these opportunities enough.”
Sydnee Ruley, a senior studying mechanical engineering and programs chair for Pitt NSBE, received that opportunity when she was in school. It changed her perception of what a typical engineer looks like: a white man in a lab coat.
She remembers what it’s like being on the other side.
“For me, I had programs like this when I was in school, and NSBE members would come into my class,” said Ruley. “And they were like me. They were Black. And they came and talked to me about engineering.”
It’s critical for any student to have exposure to a career field, but especially for Black students, Merlo said.
“We have done a terrible job in our country of elevating the narrative of Black people,” Merlo explained. “When you don’t share the narrative of Black success, provide the examples, and lead the way – then who will children follow? Children can’t do what they do not know about. We have to expose them to all of the options and provide them with opportunities to connect.”
The Josh Gibsons of Tomorrow
Anthony Evans, an eighth grader at Pittsburgh Classical Academy, didn’t know what engineering was until he joined the STEAM Program. He saw the program as an opportunity to learn something different outside the classroom.
“I decided to join so I could be more successful, whether that’s in engineering, building stuff or just life,” Evans said.
Evans rocked excitedly in his seat and sorted through the provided materials for the class, ranging from colored pencils to an iPad. Materials for the STEAM Program are all provided by the foundation through a Department of Education grant. Dollar Bank is also a financial partner and occasionally visits the class to teach about fiscal responsibility.
Evans took a silly picture of himself on the iPad during class introductions and started to giggle. Sean Gibson quickly, but also with a sense of humor, corrected Evans on how to behave while in the classroom. Evans had his full attention on Gibson for the rest of the period.
“The boys really connect to Sean,” Merlo said. “They continue to come because he is a friend and mentor to them, especially the students who struggle in regular classroom environments.”
Peter Dadson is the Pitt NSBE member leading this year’s class. Dadson, a junior majoring in chemical and petroleum engineering at the Swanson School, joins remotely from Zoom every Monday. Dadson chose the program because he wanted to give back to the Black community in some way.
“There’s so many negative influences that can come upon the world and toward people in minority communities, so I want to be able to have the skills to not just uplift myself but uplift people around me,” Dadson said.
It takes Dadson about two hours to prepare a lesson plan, which can range from abstract concepts like how engineering fits within the arts to more traditional learning like coding. This is Dadson’s first time teaching middle school students, but his mom has been an educator for more than 25 years. He turns to her for advice to create an engaging classroom environment.
“The things that go into putting a lesson plan together are really important,” Dadson explained. “When you’re teaching these concepts to someone, you have to really make sure your understanding is fortified.”
He also wants students to think hard about how engineering impacts the larger world.
“I think these students are our future,” Dadson said. “It’s important to implement these ideas into these children now, so that when they grow and go into higher academia or industry, they have these concepts ingrained in them, and they’re working to build a better tomorrow for their children and their grandchildren.”
Dadson didn’t know who Josh Gibson was before joining the class. Evans, on the other hand, learned who he was seeing after seeing a play about Gibson’s life in elementary school. After learning about Gibson’s lack of formal education, Evans said he’s “relieved” to be able to do things like the STEAM Program as a modern Black student.
“I just want to make the Black community proud that we can do this stuff now,” Evans said.