When Dr. Samuel Ivy shows students how to program a robot or build a circuit board, he sees a familiar spark in their eyes. It’s the same look he had as a young man when he first fell in love with math. It’s also the driving force behind the West Point-Sphero Robotics Workshop that exposes students to pathways in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and computer programming.
Ivy, a math professor at the United State Military Academy at West Point and director of the Center for Leadership and Diversity in STEM, brought his mobile robotics workshop to the CFES Brilliant Pathways Conference Center on January 24-25. Students from 12 schools in the North Country worked side-by-side with Ivy and cadets from the U.S. Military Academy building circuit boards, programming and learning about careers in STEM.
“You do this enough times and you see those little sparks of interest like I had at their age,” said Ivy, who earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from North Carolina State University before coming to West Point in 2015. “Our main goal is to expose them to all of the career opportunities in STEM, but also to the talent and skills they didn’t even know they had. I didn’t know my own capabilities until someone showed me.”
The unique partnership between CFES and the U.S. Military Academy began in 2013-14 and has exposed over 1,500 CFES students to potential careers in STEM. West Point has held workshops for CFES students in Boston, Atlanta, Hawaii, Florida and the Adirondacks with a focus on STEM activities such as programming robots to solve real-life problems and college and career readiness.
For Ivy, teaching students from underserved and underrepresented areas has been a lifelong passion. He started tutoring students at Brown Middle School in Atlanta, a CFES partner school, just down the street from Morehouse College when he was undergraduate there. “I was part of some math groups at Morehouse and was looking to give back,” says Ivy. “It was a natural fit to combine math tutoring with community outreach in that area.”
While at Morehouse as fate would have it, Ivy met fellow math tutor Sheryl Outing, a student at nearby Spelman College, who happened to be the daughter of CFES Board Member Don Outing. At the time, Outing was a faculty member in the math department at West Point and founding director of its Center for Leadership and Diversity in STEM where he created STEM Workshops that have impacted more than 10,000 students nationwide.
Ivy eventually left Morehouse for graduate school at NC State where he earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in Mathematics. Don Outing, now Vice President for Equity & Community, Lehigh University, stayed in touch and helped to recruit Ivy to West Point.
“Don initially introduced me to West Point by inviting us to give a talk when I was a senior at Morehouse and it just blew me away,” recalls Ivy. “From that moment, he made an effort to stay in touch. Don worked very hard to increase the representation of mathematicians of color within the department, so I knew a lot of people there that spoke highly of West Point, which made it an easy choice.”
Ivy says the center’s outreach continues to grow as it has broadened its definition of diversity to include underserved groups in more rural communities like the Adirondacks where students don’t have access to as many opportunities related to STEM. “Meeting the cadets and participating in the workshop when I was in seventh grade inspired me to want to go to college at West Point and major in electrical engineering,” said Crown Point Central Sophomore Tristan Carey who attended his second workshop three years later on Jan. 24 in Essex.
“We create a pipeline by sowing a seed that leads to the production of successful people in society,” says Ivy. “It’s a pipeline not just to West Point, but to STEM and opportunities and college and job pathways. Our objective is to kindle the fire of students who show an interest in STEM. In other cases, we’re actually starting the fire.”
In addition to showing students all of the job possibilities in STEM, Ivy wants to introduce students to West Point. A summer STEM camp at West Point goes a long way in showing students what the highly-regarded military academy is really like.
“We try to fill the gap of their understanding so they don’t automatically think ‘oh, the standard is too high at West Point’ or ‘I can’t achieve it because of my background,’” says Ivy. “Me coming to West Point was a result of someone in the center and the department (Don Outing) recruiting me to be in this position. So if it got me there, how many more lives can we touch and eventually bring back to West Point in the form of a cadet or an instructor.”