Engineers of Tomorrow

By Marguerite Spencer

Collaboration is key for Cornell's National Society of Black Engineers.

The first time Denzel Bridges, ’13 MSE, competed for Cornell in the National Society of Black Engineers’ (NSBE)’s “Engineers of Tomorrow” competition, the team came in second. So when Denzel led a new team—Richard Damson Dansoh ’13 OR, Brandon Gainer ’13 ChemE, Roland Krieger ’13 ECE, and Ph.D. candidate Thomas Spencer CE—into the fray last November, it was, for him, something of a grudge match. This time Cornell bested six teams to walk away with the top prize based on academic excellence, engineering problem solving, and teamwork.

“We saw the NSBE plaques in the hallway in the Cornell office,” says Bridges, “but there were none from recent years.” 

Cornell has earned the trophy once again, but NSBE no longer gives a plaque to the winning team, instead giving each team member an individual certificate. Wall plaques aside, the Cornell team remains proud of its latest NSBE achievement. 

Success came in part from the good match between team members’ backgrounds—civil, electrical and computer engineering, operations research and materials science —with the competition’s subjects. Through various game-show formats of multiple-choice and multi-step questions, topics covered general engineering and science, and knowledge of African-American scientists and inventors. The chance to choose categories presented the team with a good opportunity for strategy. Says team member Roland Krieger, “If we noticed the other team didn’t do well in a particular category, we would choose questions in that category.” 

Most of all, the team attributes its win to their excellent preparation though Cornell’s own rigorous academic curriculum. “We didn’t have to do much additional study,” says team leader Denzel.

CU NSBE Programs Chair, Jordan Davis ’14 says the win has energized “our members to continue pursuing excellence and achieve prominence across the country.” 

Winning the Engineers of Tomorrow Competition is not the only way Cornell has distinguished itself recently through NSBE. Calvin Phelps M.Eng. ’11 is the national organization’s immediate past chairperson. Now employed as a jet engine designer with Pratt and Whitney in Middletown, Conn., he carries the title of “chairperson emeritus” and currently serves as adviser. 

Phelp’s passion for NSBE centers on the opportunity to reach out to young African-Americans to engage their interest in scientific professions. Taking account of outstanding African-American scientists of the past, such as Charles Drew, whose research on blood plasma led to the invention of the first blood bank; and Garrett Morgan, who invented the modern-day gas mask and traffic light; among others; Phelps insists that minorities must extend their presence in science into the twenty-first century that will be shaped by technology.

Attracting and retaining minority engineering students is an important feature of his recent leadership of NSBE that was capped by work on the STEM Undergraduate Education Working Group established by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Fulfilling the charge to develop methods to increase the number of African-Americans in STEM fields, the group produced “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

Collaboration, he says, is key to retaining African-American, indeed all, college students. The networking this involves is more difficult for minorities at institutions like Cornell, however, given their small number and dispersion across a large campus. Says Phelps, “This is where Cornell’s Diversity Programs in Engineering (DPE) does an outstanding job.” Speaking of his own experience as a grad student at Cornell, he says his first year was very difficult. But then, as the already newly elected NSBE National Chairperson, he decided to leverage his NSBE affiliation on the Cornell campus and found DPE. “And once I got connected to these resources at Cornell,” he says, “I ended up loving the place!”

Thanks to DPE, Phelps states, “Many institutions face the challenge of maintaining their numbers of minority engineers, but Cornell Engineering is way ahead of the curve. Its 72 percent retention rate of minority students speaks for itself.”

DPE Director Sara Xayarath Hernández explains, “We partner with students and support them as they take ownership of their success as Cornell Engineers.”

Integrating leadership with engineering is also core to NSBE’s mission of increasing “the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.” Phelps describes how as a then-23-year-old leader of a global organization, he was responsible for an $8 million budget. Heading a team of volunteers, keeping them motivated and sometimes having to pull effort out of non-productive team members was great leadership training, he says.

DPE’s Henrnández welcomes affiliation with the NSBE because it complements her office’s efforts to help students grow academically, professionally and technically, and cultivate leadership and networking talents. Founded in 1974, NSBE is one of the largest student-governed organizations in the country with some 30,000 members and 400 college, pre-college and technical, professional or alumni chapters in the United States and other countries. The Cornell Chapter registers over 30 members annually, with a few coming from non-engineering STEM disciplines.

Access to senior professionals and corporate recruiters at NSBE’s annual conference is another benefit of membership. That is how Computer Science major and CU NSBE Chapter Treasurer William Jackson ’14 gained his internship with Cisco Systems. The conference was also where, years ago, as a North Carolina State University undergrad, Phelps was encouraged by a Cornell grad student to apply. DPE’s associate director, Jami Joyner points out, “The NSBE conference is an occasion to mentor as well as be mentored. A sizeable number of high school and undergraduate students attend and Cornell students are happy to provide guidance on college, graduate school, and other decisions.”

Another Cornell alum who values his NSBE and Cornell experiences is former CU NSBE Chapter President and now seasoned patent lawyer Dr. Frank DeCosta ’80. Frank credits both for his present leadership of the electrical and computer technology practice of international law firm Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow Garrett and Dunner based in Washington, DC. In between working with clients across the globe, he returns to the Ithaca campus often to partner with DPE in mentoring College of Engineering students and NSBE members.

One such mentee is Jasmine Williams ’14 who joined other Cornell Engineering students on a recent service-learning project in the Dominican Republic. Jasmine coupled her civil engineering knowledge with her fluency in Spanish to help a rural community build an eco-lodge and school.

In ways that are sometimes subtle and personal, Cornell’s DPE helps students gain a greater appreciation also of how people from other backgrounds think and live. “Since coming to Cornell and joining NSBE I have learned that, while it’s important to be with people who look like me—especially the ones who are doing well—just because someone isn’t black doesn’t mean they don’t feel the way I do,” says Davis. “There’s learning on all sides and I’m making sure I get perspective from everyone.”