Dream Young Dream Big

Thursday, March 29, 2007

In the last 20 years Professor Robert C. Johnson’s math and science summer camps have provided life-altering experiences for more than 2,500 young people from minority, low-income and other demographic groups who traditionally have shied away from those fields.

Participants at the summer outline opportunities at SCSU

“The key is opportunity for these kids to think about their future and help them know they have choices in life,” said Johnson, who recently was honored with a Minnesota Minority Education Partnership Award for his efforts to promote success for students of color.

“Johnson’s success,” according to the non-profit partnership, “is due to his understanding of the cultural uniqueness of each student – whether Latino, African American, Asian or American Indian – and his ability to draw on the natural hopes and dreams that exist in each culture to drive educational achievement.”

The on-campus summer programs reflect the “pipeline” concept, strategies aimed at young people who would not otherwise perceive themselves as college material. “These programs give kids an opportunity to consider higher education as tangible rather than abstract – that this is something they can do,” said Johnson, chair of the St. Cloud State University Department of Ethnic Studies.

The experiment has worked. Although the exact number of camp graduates is not known, Johnson said nearly 200 of his program participants have become students at SCSU – a third of those students of color – and hundreds of others have entered 60 different institutions of higher education. Those are pretty good numbers considering hundreds of camp alumni are still in elementary school.

Dennis Luke, a second-year student from Richfield, Minn., and a native of Sudan, chose SCSU as a result of his 2004 experience in the Scientific Discovery Program.

“I didn’t know much about St. Cloud State before coming to the program,” he said. “Dr. Johnson gave me an opportunity to experience something most kids don’t get to do.” Now he’s a pre-pharmacy major.

Johnson founded the Math-Science-Computer Camps
to address the problems of minority under-representation
in science and engineering in 1987, two years after joining
the faculty.

In partnership with the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis and with a small grant from the federal Eisenhower Title II Grant, a pilot project was started in the summer of 1987, targeting early elementary and junior high students. In following years campers would be in residence with their age groups on the SCSU campus for five days in June.

Participation by other SCSU faculty members, area public school teachers and college-age staff members enriches the program. John and Linda Peck, local environmentalists and educators, have opened their farm to younger campers nearly every summer, offering children who often have never been in a rural setting the chance to see first-hand how food is grown and animals are raised.

In 1991 Johnson’s successful program landed funding from national sources, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy, to offer high school students a five-week residential program in scientific research. That was the foundation of the Scientific Discovery Program for 9th- and 10th-grade students, in which faculty members involved in research give participants college laboratory experience.

The 3M Foundation and Xcel Engery Foundation, among others, provide annual support of the programs.

The Advanced Program in Technology and Science was founded in 2000 to respond to the interest of students and parents in continuing summer programs through high school.

Nearly half the students in Johnson’s pipeline programs are identified as African or African-American; others include American Indian, Asian/Asian American, Latino, white and multiple heritage. Nearly
half are from low-income families.

Parents report that the program leads to increased confidence, motivation and responsibility, improved grades and greater multicultural awareness. 

“Our agenda is to provide an academic enrichment program,” Johnson said. “But the agenda of the kids coming here is to have fun and meet other kids. No matter how much they’re academically challenged, they’re having a good time, and that’s good. They benefit from associating with students from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

“It’s definitely a life-changing experience,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re here for. St. Cloud State University as a public, state institution has a responsibility to society and to all the people in this state. We have a role to play in the development of human potential. It’s a short-term and long-term responsibility. This program is key to that mission.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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