This is a guest post from Claire Healy, Pilot Coordinator for the City of Philadelphia’s US2020 STEM Mentoring program.
The national US2020 initiative was developed two years ago with a call from the White House to generate innovative solutions to our country’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) challenges.
STEM Mentoring is especially important for those underrepresented – low-income, minority, and female – in STEM fields. While traditional 1 on 1 mentoring has been an effective method in encouraging youth to reengage and be successful (for example, see SPARK Philadelphia), the US2020 High Impact STEM Mentoring model focuses on the hands-on exploration of STEM topics with mentors guiding and working with students at a ratio of approximately 2 to 10.
The City of Philadelphia recently piloted its own US2020 STEM Mentoring program through a partnership with the Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) and the Mayor’s Office of Education. OIT’s Innovation Management group led the effort, developing a 6-week program for the students of Chester A. Arthur School, a district K-8 school. Students traveled to the City’s Innovation Lab each week to learn about STEM professions within OIT such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Open Data, End User Support, and KEYSPOTs. Each OIT mentor team designed a two-hour, hands-on session with an activity that tied back to the pilot’s overarching project: designing a “cool school” to serve its students and community. The program culminated in a design charrette that challenged students to think about what a “school of the future” would look like, using the principles they had learned over the course of mentoring initiative, and they had the opportunity to present their designs to their school principal and Mayor Michael Nutter.
The pilot program was successful and deeply impactful because of two unique characteristics. First, STEM professionals from the Office of Innovation and Technology did not simply participate in a session – they thoroughly designed, planned and implemented specialized and intentional programing. The mentors spent more than 10 hours before the pilot program even started in order to craft the structure of the program, create the curriculum, and complete mentor training. Their involvement went beyond being mentors for youth – these leaders stepped-up and were able to create an amazing opportunity from scratch.
High Impact STEM mentoring also emphasizes hands-on (and minds-on) learning. The location and characteristics of space are not to be overlooked when planning for STEM activities. STEM programming is most beneficial to youth development when it takes place in an informal environment where quality STEM activities can be hands-on and the students can get messy – literally – if necessary. There are few spaces in municipal government that could—or would—allow for both the building of spaghetti and marshmallow towers while also fostering the kind of open environment between the adults and the youth that was facilitated by the Innovation Lab. The Lab offered an ideal environment that allowed students to engage, explore and learn with STEM professionals in real and meaningful ways.
There was overwhelming interest by both the students and the mentors in continuing this program, and the City’s Innovation Management group is planning to facilitate a second US2020 STEM Mentoring cohort in the Innovation Lab this fall. In an effort to build upon the relationships formed during this first pilot, the youth who will still be attending Chester A Arthur will help form the curriculum, deliverables and project scope in partnership with the OIT leadership.