“Yahoo!” 12-year-old Union City student Gonzalo Alarcon exclaimed Wednesday morning while waiting to board the bus that would take him to the New Jersey Institute of Technology. This year marks his second summer enrolled in the pre-college program (paid for by the city and free to students) that offers young math and science buffs engineering courses of various types.
“I want to be an inventor,” Gonzalo said. “I have so many ideas, like an eco-car that will eliminate the need for gasoline, and new kinds of solar panels. I don’t want this to come to an end!”
Wednesday was the second-to-last day of classes for Gonzalo and 115 of his fellow students, all in fourth to eighth grades, that began on July 9. The remaining 20 students enrolled in the program were from the high school and had taken college level courses whose credits would roll over into their freshman college year.
“I don’t want this to come to an end!” – Gonzalo Alarcon
Sticking to it
Gonzalo is not alone in his enthusiasm, according to the program’s supervising teacher Edwin Amar, who has shuttled children back and forth to NJIT for the past 15 years. He explained that a majority of the students have returned year after year, and have continued with the program all the way through senior year of high school.
In fact, two of the students who began in fourth grade and who just graduated from Union City High School will be attending NJIT this coming year.
“Ninety percent of students in this program go on to college and graduate,” Amar added. “Going to college is one thing, and graduating is another.”
Another benefit of the program is that once young students get a taste of NJIT’s campus and the many, many other students from surrounding communities who take summer courses, moving on to high school or college life is a cinch.
“I remember when I went to college,” Amar recalled, “And I was afraid. But these guys have done this for so many years, it’s just another building to them.”
Karina Chen, 10, is in her first year at NJIT’s pre-college program. She is in love with her environmental engineering classes.
“I love to try new things,” Karina explained. “We did DNA testing on fruit to see if it is affected by pollution, and we made a CO-3 balloon. But my favorite project was the poster I made for endangered animals.”
Karina’s poster had a tiger on it, because it’s her favorite animal. She hopes to continue with the program as long as she can.
Six students, whom Amar and teacher Waleed Miqbel called “the captains,” all going into eighth grade next year, have been in the program for four years. They’ve become old pros at the college routine and their enthusiasm has only grown over time.
Students must apply every year to the program, similar to the process of college applications, and their acceptance is granted based on their cumulative grades and special testing.
On the final day of classes, the school holds an awards ceremony where students receive certificates of completion. Outstanding students Wandally Vargas and Ashley Rinaldi both won in prior years for excellence in computer engineering while Arlene Mendez won for environmental, mathematical, and mechanical engineering.
“My experience has helped me get an edge on the coming school year after learning so much,” Arlene said. “The program helps with career choices also, but the biggest way it’s changed my life is the friendships I’ve made. We meet new people every time.”
Many parents stood outside one of three busses that escort the elementary schoolers to and from the Newark campus that morning, beaming with pride as their children toted their final projects with them.
Gonzalo’s mother Danny Alarcon loves that her sons (Gonzalo’s brother, also named Gonzalo, is also enrolled) get the opportunity to learn about engineering.
“Every night they come home excited,” she said in Spanish. “I’ve learned a lot. They talk for hours as they do their homework and they try to explain to me what they’ve learned themselves.”
Dina Mendoza, whose son Freddy Mamani is in his first year with the program, says she is extremely thankful for its availability. She explained how her 9-year-old daughter has told her she wants to study extra hard and get good grades so she can join her brother next year.
“It is a beautiful program and I am so thankful to the Board of Education,” Mendoza said in Spanish. “It helps children in so many ways. The teachers appreciate the importance of learning and foster their intelligence and their growth so that they will have better opportunities in the future. And they invest themselves personally, which inspires their students.”
For more information on NJIT’s pre-college program, visit www.njit.edu/precollege/studentprograms.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org