Engineers build curriculum for immigrant students

For Phillip Bishop, a philosophy professor, working with a group of engineering students on a cultural and educational grant was a far-fetched idea, he said.

However, at the end of the fall 2010 semester he received a grant proposal from the Intercultural Association and the Hispanic Outreach Center in Pinellas County, and said he couldn’t think of a better group to work with.

Members of the student organization Fundamental Learning for Interdisciplinary Technology Education (FLITE) are currently developing a curriculum geared toward molding fifth-grade, first-generation immigrant students into community leaders, Bishop said.

“Here we are, signing up for a cultural, educational grant and it’s all engineers,” Bishop said. “It seems a little strange at first sight, but working with engineers has proven to be astonishing to me. They don’t just think of electricity and mechanics and chemicals; they see problems. They see a problem and they try to find a solution. They don’t care how. They don’t care how long it’s going to take. It’s inspiring (and) heartening.”

The curriculum, created by the FLITE students, will span topics such as gang resistance, computer skills, teen pregnancy and sex education, he said. Lessons will also be taught to parents, who will attend weekly classes with their children starting in the fall semester, so the students receive two prongs of support. Classes, which will last for a year, will be taught by Hispanic Outreach Center instructors.

“Not all of (the parents of the fifth-graders) are here legally,” Bishop said. “There are not a whole lot of social safety nets in place for them. Their children are in school with other people’s children. Their problems are not going away. We can either ignore them and pretend that they’re going to go away, or we can do something to solve the problems (they face).”

Most of the FLITE students are first-generation immigrants themselves, Bishop said, and relied on personal experience to develop the lessons. Before receiving the grant, Bishop said FLITE students had contacted him for help with a similar project, but didn’t have a specific avenue to follow.

Yohannes Samuel, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and the president of the organization, was raised in Southern California by Ethiopian parents.

“While I was there I was exposed to a lot and I saw … what these kids are dealing with,” Samuel said. “Maybe they’re growing up in rougher neighborhoods with lower incomes. They don’t have good role models to look up to. A lot of things I have now are because of a few people ahead of me who helped me.”

Samuel, who said he was unsure of where to turn after finishing high school, hoped to bring a sense of direction to the younger students.

“I didn’t have a lot of guidance pursuing higher education, so that was one of my stronger motivations,” he said. “With this club, I wanted to start a path where we can be examples to people that have the drive, but just don’t have the direction … There are social, political and cultural barriers that are going to prevent them from doing well. Instead of putting out fires, we want to build firefighters.”

Samuel said FLITE is currently working on creating a series of success-story videos to incorporate into their lessons. They plan to finalize their curriculum by the end of June.

“We want the students to know this is not just you facing it, (but) it’s a lot of people,” he said. “We want students to see that life goes on and it does get better.”