Willie S. Rockward CEF ’01 on mentoring future scientists

Left: Dr. Rockward teaches a class. Right: a NuMass class (photos courtesy Dr. Rockward and Progressive Images

Left: Dr. Rockward teaches a class. Right: a NuMass class (photos courtesy Dr. Rockward and Progressive Images

Helping Kids Find Their Passion

“Mentoring is not a job,” says Willie S. Rockward CEF ‘01. “It takes extra time, extra energy—you’ve got to love it. It’s a labor of love.”

Dr. Rockward is chair and associate professor of physics at Morehouse College, as well as Research Director of the college’s Materials and Optics Research & Engineering (MORE) Laboratory. He also heads Morehouse’s Nuclear, Materials, and Space Sciences (NuMaSS) Summer Program.

NuMaSS, Dr. Rockward explains, exposes middle and high school students to science as a discipline and possible career. “A lot of students, especially underrepresented minorities, fall out of the science pipeline in middle school,” he says. “Their peers begin telling them that smart isn’t cool, and so our smart kids begin doing dumb things. We give them a chance to see the world beyond their school community.”

The four-week program includes both classwork on the Morehouse campus and enrichment experiences, such as field trips to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, nuclear power plants, and local science and technology firms. This structure exposes participants to a range of perspectives and mentors: scientists and faculty, including Dr. Rockward and his colleagues Kiandra Johnson (math), Deidre Williams (biology), Eddie Red (physics), Juana Mendenhall (chemistry), and Thomas Searles (physics); current undergraduates who help with classwork; and like-minded peers.

Dr. Rockward has himself been the beneficiary of mentoring as a Fellow and throughout his career, and many of his mentors have remained important advisors and colleagues. “There are mentors who are meant to be temporary, for one project or one stage of your life, and then there are lifelong mentors,” he says. “First the mentorship is a vertical one, and then at some point it becomes horizontal, more like camaraderie. From that point on, it has nothing to do with age or stage or professional advancement. You just want this person to continue to grow, and your mentor has a sincere desire for you to grow—to blossom, to bloom.”

He wants the young people he now works with to have the kind of support, networking, and vision they typically won’t find in school, or among their friends. “We’re mentoring them professionally to prepare them to succeed in college. They’ll be more confident in their gifts, their skills, and their personal interest in science. They can say to their peers, ‘You don’t think it’s cool, but I still like it, and I’m going to do it.’”

Now preparing for its fifth summer, NuMaSS has grown from four students with Morehouse funding in its first year to 24 students last year with additional external funding, including support from NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy NNSA. Among the first NuMaSS participants to graduate high school, in the class of 2014, were Dr. Rockward’s own daughter, now a first-year student in neuroscience at the University of Kentucky; a colleague’s daughter, currently a math major at Kennesaw State University; and a third young woman who, following the NuMaSS experience, took accelerated courses and received a full engineering scholarship at North Carolina A&T.

Not all NuMaSS alumni will stay in STEM, says Dr. Rockward, but all participants develop the ability to stretch themselves beyond their current academic and social environments.

“We have to help them get past some of these societal and mental walls, especially people telling them they can’t do well in math,” he explains. “If you can dance, keep a musical beat, play a video game, count money, then you can do math.”

“As mentors we’re trying to break some of these stigmas. We have to help them find their passion faster. That’s when society will experience a boom of new ideas, new technological advances, and new economies—because our young people will do STEM with passion and love.”


This story appeared in our Spring 2015 newsletter. To view the full newsletter online, click here.


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