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BY Mary Lord

No Mind Left Behind

An engineer seeks to inspire a new generation.


UP CLOSE image: Karl Reid with text: When the Red Sox won the World Series, Karl Reid thought of hands-on learning. Quote: Science of baseball was born.As a child, Karl Reid spent hours inventing intricate landscapes for his hand-me-down Lionel trains and turning broken two-wheelers into zippy motorbikes. Today, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer is steering the venerable United Negro College Fund onto new academic terrain - including the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics pipeline - and boosting graduation rates for a particularly vulnerable group: African-American males.

Engineering - and MIT - loomed large in Reid's childhood in the blue-collar community of Roosevelt, N.Y. "I blame my dad," he laughs. The third of four children, Reid recalls that his father, who had quit college after two years to join the Navy, coached him to say "Massachusetts Institute of Technology" as a toddler. The elder Reid, who could repair everything from cabinets to a minibike engine, recognized a kindred engineering orientation in his son's fascination with radio knobs, motors, and trains. "He saw in me an intrinsic curiosity as well," Reid recalls.

Admitted to MIT from a magnet high school where he had studied computer science and electrical engineering, Reid struggled with physics, chemistry, and calculus in the summer bridge program. But chemistry's logical sequences and processes "caught my imagination." His tutor, a materials science upperclassman, sensed that spark and suggested he might enjoy her discipline, and Reid was sold. Five years later, in 1985, he left with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in materials science and engineering.

Reflecting now, Reid says engineering translated his "passion for understanding how things work" into "a way to think and a way to solve problems." But it left some gaps that more liberal arts training might have filled: "To write well, argue a point, assess a discussion - these are life skills that traditional engineering education doesn't prepare you for."

Joining the National Society of Black Engineers, he says, "turned me on" to improving the pathway into engineering for young African-Americans. Elected to direct NSBE's Ambassadors' Program junior year, Reid enlisted minority mentors and spoke to local high school kids about engineering. "That really ignited my passion," he says. "Not only was I doing good, but I was good at it." Reid organized overnights and a "dog and pony show" at MIT for local minority middle and high school students, who would visit classes and engage in hands-on engineering projects like building airplanes. The experience propelled Reid to run for vice chair of MIT's NSBE chapter, then national chairman.

Twelve years in the computer industry didn't shake Reid's quest to improve diversity and access to STEM education. In 1998, he returned to his alma mater as executive director of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs. There, Reid raised the endowment and quality of its flagship Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science summer program for highly talented high school seniors - 60 to 80 percent of whom typically get into MIT. He also launched new STEM enrichment and mentoring programs for local middle and high school students. "He helped create the pipeline we're all trying to build," says Shawna Young, the office's current executive director. "It took a lot of work and a lot of vision."

Reid held to that vision as he moved up MIT's ranks, becoming associate dean of undergraduate education and head of the Office of Minority Education - and earning a doctorate in education from Harvard. He searched for ways to get inner-city boys jazzed about decimals, vectors, and other core concepts. When the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, Reid saw a way to leverage home-team spirit and children's learn-by-doing nature. The "Science of Baseball" program he developed pairs batting, for example, with classroom lessons on parabolas and physics, which young players practice on MIT's diamond.

As UNCF's senior vice president for academic programs and strategic initiatives since 2008, Reid can scale up his work to build a national pipeline, boosting investments in outreach and enrichment programs to raise academic batting averages - and completion rates - at its 39 member institutions.

Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

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