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November 14, 2010

APL Engineers Help Prepare High School Students for College Application Process

Karla Roncal.jpgTwo APL electrical engineers with a passion for teaching are using their time and talent to nurture the next generation of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. Last summer, husband-and-wife team William Gray and Karla Roncal combined their interests in education and science by running the Maryland MESA College Prep Program (CPP). (MESA, which stands for Math, Engineering, Science Achievement, is an APL-developed/supported program that encourages children to become interested in technical careers.)

Turning an Idea into Reality

Will Gray for MESA.jpgIn 2009, Gray and Roncal founded CPP to help high school students—especially minority students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields—prepare for college. “Based on national statistics and our personal experiences, we knew that qualified students were failing to attend college, graduate, and pursue advanced degrees in STEM fields because of limited information and family circumstances,” says Gray. “We wanted to help.”

Gray and Roncal say they always dreamed of establishing a summer program to mentor students and motivate them to achieve their dreams. After years of aiding siblings, friends, and neighbors with the college application process, they decided to put their materials together into one package and call it “College Prep.” They hadn’t planned to start the program for a few more years, but with support from MESA, they were able to launch it earlier.

Classes met every Saturday for 3 months; Gray, Roncal, and other volunteers helped students (and parents) prepare for SATs and college visits, select and apply for colleges, learn about and apply for financial aid, and practice for entrance interviews. They also arranged for motivational speakers from the STEM fields.

To locate students for the program, Gray and Roncal reached out through MESA, local schools, the Black Engineer of the Year Conference, and other groups.

group photo

All area high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors are eligible to apply for CPP. “We look for students who are doing well academically but who need extra help getting ready for college,” Roncal says. “We especially encourage applications from students who are from low-income backgrounds, first-generation college students, students interested in or underrepresented in STEM fields, and any other student who would benefit from encouragement, mentoring, and positive role models.”

For the program’s second year, Gray and Roncal chose 20 students representing 15 high schools in the Baltimore–Washington area. Approximately 80% of them were interested in STEM fields, half of them came from low-income backgrounds, and seven will be first-generation college students.

Gray and Roncal made small changes for the program’s second year. They accepted six more students, devoted more time to SAT preparation and financial aid instruction, and started 2 months earlier so that students could finish before the beginning of the new school year.

Valuable Experience

Roncal participated in similar programs in middle and high school and says she understood their value and impact. “Those programs definitely inspired the CPP model because I was exposed to energetic mentors who gave me a picture of what my future looked like if I pursued a career in engineering,” Roncal says.

In addition to their full-time APL jobs, their CPP work, and a variety of other community outreach activities, both Gray and Roncal are going back to school. Gray is starting work toward a doctorate in electrical engineering, and Roncal is taking prep courses for a doctorate in neuroscience or biomedical engineering. The couple says that balancing everything can be difficult, but they enjoy all of it.

“CPP is incredibly rewarding,” Gray says. “A student’s parents asked us what we did for fun, and we both answered ‘this program.’ I think we are very fortunate to have the opportunities that we've had, and we want to give back.”

Gray and Roncal hope to continue offering the course for years to come. “Eventually, we would like to see this program grow into multiple classrooms and have previous students teach assistants and instructors, but that is going to take some time to coordinate and set up since we are both in school for the next few years,” Roncal says.