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How a city department is changing its STEM mentorship program for better impact

Students from Chester A. Arthur participate in last year's US2020 pilot. November 24, 2015 Category: Results
What do the beginnings of a successful STEM mentorship pilot program look like? If you ask the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, it’s a cohort of middle school students walking 30 blocks in the cold just to listen to professionals talk about themselves.

The local arm of a nationwide initiative, OIT’s US2020 PHL pilot kicked off last winter to what program organizers called great success. Even so, there was room for improvement.

Last year’s eight-week program featured two-hour presentations from leaders across city departments on topics such as GIS and open data. Now, OIT is hoping to better its program by letting those receiving the mentorship — the students of South Philly’s Chester A. Arthur School — decide how it could be best executed for them, and move forward from there.

First on the docket? Rebranding the programming to further differentiate the pilot program from the national initiative. The students have taken leadership over how they’ll be mentored by renaming US2020 PHL’s program Center City STEM.

“We wanted to make sure this was US2020 Level 2, not just a repeat of last year,” said program manager Eliza Pollack. “We want it to be really clear that returning students who love the program so much will have a new experience.”

The program is growing in other ways, too.

Students will still make the 30-block trek to the city’s Innovation Lab in the Municipal Services Building for the majority of the program, but, perhaps as an act of symbolism, Pollack and fellow program manager Claire Healy decided to meet the students where they are and bring the sessions to the school twice this year.

The program managers also met with previously participating students to get feedback about what they wanted. What did the students like best about last year’s program? What did they think needed improvement, and what should be done differently? The answers weren’t completely surprising for middle schoolers.

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“As much as we tried to play with this last year, the students really want to do the hands-on work,” Healy said.

Last year’s program prompted students to ponder what a “cool school” should look like, but the overarching theme proved to be too hypothetical. There was no real conclusive product to work toward — the program obviously wasn’t going to be building a “cool school.”

Instead, every session this year will be thematically consistent with the idea of “community,” and the program will culminate with an open house community engagement fair for the students to show off their new tech chops to families and neighbors.

“Every mentor and every session is aimed at supporting that end goal,” Pollack said. “At the end of this, there should be a very real, tangible, engaging event where the students can share their excitement and what they learned with people in their community.”

 

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