After its second year, the city's STEM mentorship program is finding its place - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 22, 2016 9:50 am

After its second year, the city’s STEM mentorship program is finding its place

The Office of Innovation and Technology's Center City STEM program was born from a US2020 pilot. This year, it took on an identity of its own. Here's how it fared.

A student's Lego model of the city's Innovation Lab.

(Courtesy photo)

The Office of Innovation and Technology has its hands in a diverse array of city projects ranging from a digital literacy and inclusion initiatives to a coworking space and innovation training programs for city employees topped off by a fund to pay for it all.

Ask any of OIT’s employees what’s at the crux of the work their department does and they’ll tell you the same thing: Create a replicable blueprint that can be adopted by any organization doing any type of work anywhere.

That mission is evident in the progress OIT has made with the STEM mentorship program the department piloted last year at Chester A. Arthur School. Inspired by US2020, a national challenge to match one million STEM professionals with students by 2020, OIT’s program is getting closer to working out a replicable blueprint of its own.

Dubbed Center City STEM by its second cohort of middle school students, the program just closed out its second year with a community engagement fair that showcased what the students learned from their city employee mentors.

One group of students at the fair worked a table where they showed attendees how to use Philly311. Another showed off an impressively accurate Lego model of the city’s Innovation Lab.

There were three key changes this year, according to OIT’s Digital Inclusion Innovation Specialist Claire Healy.

  • Find a way to keep students from last year engaged in the program. Otherwise, the mentorship sessions would become repetitive and stale. The solution: Get last year’s cohort to tutor new students.
  • Make the end result tangible. Last year, the program just kind of ended. The solution: The student showcase was a way for students to showcase what they’ve learned to their community.
  • Bring in fresh mentors. Specifically, ones that don’t work at OIT. The solution: The Center City STEM team plucked a range of city employees from different departments this year, including the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy.

“We created tangible products along the way the school could own,” said Eliza Pollack, OIT’s program manager for innovation management. “They can continuously update their Instagram account. They know how to use WordPress.”

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Overall, said Program Manager Ellen Hwang, OIT adopted a more holistic approach this year. Sessions may have differed week to week, but the idea of community was the program’s throughline. But, as always, there’s still room for improvement, like better developing leadership skills within the student body and figuring out what exactly the final product of this program might look like.

“I think the program could have even more impact if there was some follow up with the mentors and the kids,” said Chester A. Arthur Counselor Megan Brigaman. “Perhaps a session where the mentors come to school and help the students with their resumes, have lunch, see some other activities that are going on in the school, and maybe provide an email address for further contact if they would be comfortable doing that — some sort of extension of the program to keep the connection going.”

The program made an impact on the students in ways you might not expect from a STEM program, Brigaman said.

“One thing I noticed that really stood out was that the students developed social skills in interacting with adults,” she said. “They became very comfortable with the mentors and learned how to network with other adults that they did not know. ”

Brigaman believes the program is replicable as is. That may be true, especially considering outside of employee time and a bag of plastic cups for the fair, it took a grand total of $0 to develop, implement and operate Center City STEM.

“We do this all with no money,” Pollack said. “I think that people in general are scared to try things like this because they don’t have any funding available. Anyone who has any skill set and any group of young people can do this program.”

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