The McKelvey School of Engineering hosted 15 K-12 students on campus and more than 300 virtually as part of the BrightPath STEAM Academy Summer Camp July 23. During the day-long event, campers toured Engineering facilities and labs, met faculty and learned more about careers in STEM.

Campers saw presentations on the research coming out of the labs of Richard Axelbaum, the Stifel & Quinette Jens Professor of Environmental Engineering Science; Roman Garnett, associate professor of computer science & engineering; and Rajan Chakrabarty, associate professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering.

Aaron Bobick, dean and James M. McKelvey Professor, also spoke with the campers, discussing the ubiquitous nature of engineering as well as emphasizing the importance of the arts for engineers.

“The arts are not just about expression, they're about creativity,” Bobick said. “If you're not creative, you probably won't be a great engineer.”

Marcia Brown-Rayford, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis in 1991, launched the BrightPath STEAM Academy in November 2019 to increase representation of African Americans in science and tech.

“Throughout my career, I’ve seen very few African Americans in the sciences, technology and engineering,” Brown-Rayford said. “I've been doing science education and engineering education my entire career, so I started an organization to mitigate that gap for African Americans in STEM.”

Brown-Rayford was originally going to host the first summer camp in 2020 but had to amend her plans due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She adapted and made the event virtual, hosting nearly 150 campers that July.

This year, the number of participants more than doubled, and the camp’s reach grew beyond St. Louis, with campers from 14 states and three countries taking part. Brown-Rayford was on campus for the event, marking the first time she’d been at WashU since graduating 30 years ago.

“Although I’m an alum of WashU, I never came back,” Brown-Rayford said. “My experience back in the ‘80s was really bad, with respect to fairness, inequality and exclusion.”

It was WashU that reached out to Brown-Rayford after learning about her camp from a student enrolled in the Prison Education Project.

“He reached out to his professor and asked if she could reach out to me to see if there was some way he could help,” Brown-Rayford said. “He said he wanted to ensure that other Black males don't end up in prison like he had.”

After hearing from members of the Engineering faculty, including Princess Imoukhuede, associate professor of biomedical engineering and director of diversity initiatives, and Jessica Wagenseil, vice dean for faculty advancement and professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, Brown-Rayford decided to move ahead with the partnership.

“We were honored to host the BrightPath STEAM Academy,” Wagenseil said. “To design technology that addresses the needs of society, we need representation across our society. We hope that the visit inspired students to continue their interest in Engineering and perhaps pursue their interest at Washington University.”

Brown-Rayford echoed those sentiments and said she looks forward to continuing to partner with McKelvey Engineering to promote equity, exposure and inclusion for young, aspiring Black talent. Among their future collaboration plans is a six-week engineering course for middle schoolers.

"Recruitment starts way earlier than high school,” Brown-Rayford said. “It starts elementary school and the same group of African American students that WashU will be after, Princeton is after, Stanford is after and Harvard is after.”