The University of Maryland and Howard University are teaming up with the Army Laboratory Command to encourage blacks in the field of engineering, which traditionally has had trouble attracting minorities.
Spencer Pace, 16, of Atlanta is spending two weeks of his summer creating a robot, actually a bed with arms, made of an imaginary rubber-plastic material called "morastic."
Pace is one of 40 ninth and 10th grade minority students at College Park learning about engineering as part of the Armed Forces Orientation to Engineering Careers program. The Army hopes to eventually hire the students once they earn engineering degrees.
Giving up two weeks of summer to study engineering might not be every teen-ager's ideal vacation, but those who have chosen to participate are part of a success story in a field marked by discouraging statistics on the recruitment and retention of minorities.
More than 90 percent of participants in the program go on to college studies, and "well over half of those students major in engineering," said James Newton, director of the University Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering.
Those figures are far higher than the figures for minority engineers at the University of Maryland, where out of the slightly more than 3,000 engineering students now enrolled, 160, or 5 percent, are black. "Those aren't great percentages," Newton said.
Nationally, blacks accounted for only 4.4 percent of all U.S. engineering students in 1983, according to the Washington-based Commission of Professionals in Science and Technology.
"Both women and minorities are under-represented in the engineering field," said Vondell Carter, chief of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office at the Army Laboratory Command in Adelphi, which provides $35,000 a year to fund the program.
U.S. industry needs more engineers than colleges are turning out, Carter said, pointing out that the dropout rate among students in engineering schools is "quite high, on the order of 50 percent or more."
Minorities and women are in especially short supply because they have fewer role models in engineering careers, Carter said. The Army hopes the program will increase the pool of minority engineers from which it can recruit, he said.
The program's goal is to provide students with a glimpse of what engineering courses are like and what a professional engineer does, Newton said.
The 10-year-old program, one of about 20 nationwide, employs the university staff and two high school math teachers who give daily classes during the two-week session.
"I really want to be an electrical engineer, and I thought this program would show what being an engineer is like and what college is like," said Shelley Campell, 16, from Queens, N.Y.