Imagine a community where diverse business professionals interact with sixth, seventh and eighth graders to evoke energy and passion in a student's educational life through experience and relationships. As critical skills needs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are escalating in today's changing society -- we are challenged to contribute and collaborate in our own communities.
According to a survey done by the Lemelson-MIT Program, a majority of teenagers reported that they don't know anyone working STEM fields, nor do they understand what people in those fields do.
In response, The Obama administration and a group of corporate and non-profit organizations have banded together to expand the definition of who teaches STEM, and when and how they teach it by bringing professionals in STEM into contact with students to encourage STEM careers. By 2020, the new consortium -- US2020 -- hopes to attract a million volunteers to go into schools and colleges, mentor students, and run programs that will promote the exploration of STEM disciplines.
Former college roommates Schwarz and Ned Rimer piloted their idea for a "citizen school," by teaching fifth graders to publish a community newspaper and to deliver first aid in their school. They learned that afterschool programs for the students they served was a resource equivalent to the tutoring, music lessons, and extra-curricular clubs their peers in middle and upper class families were experiencing.
Today, Citizen Schools operates in middle schools in eight states, serving approximately 5,200 students and engaging 4,000 volunteers. A banker can teach students about financial literacy or healthy living, a lawyer can teach students to speak in public or Flamenco Dance. One goal of US2020 is to convince companies to allow 20 percent or more of their employees to spend at least 20 hours a year as STEM mentors.
Already, Citizen Schools has created a replicable model for volunteer partnerships, more than 900 Fidelity Investment employees have volunteered over 7,000 hours to Citizen Schools, leading financial literacy and STEM apprenticeships; Google has engaged approximately 450 employees and Cognizant nearly 130 employees.
"In the United States, millions of scientists and technology experts have the ability to inspire students who need their support most; US2020 will make it possible for them to enable these moments of discovery," said Schwarz, "changing the trajectory of STEM education in the United States." Currently, the U.S. ranks 23rd in science performance in international tests, and 31st in math.
"My first thought was "What will I teach?" said Dylan Nord, a Citizen Schools volunteer teacher at The Urban Assembly Unison School in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. "I'm 25 years old, a marketing and public relations professional in New York City. I was envious of the lawyers, doctors and architects whose professional skills seemed more defined than my own. Then I came across an apprenticeship on blogging, and a light bulb went off. For the past 8 weeks, I've helped a group of sixth grade students tell their story -- through photography, video, writing, illustration and acting -- online." Their blog "All About Us" is published at usinunison.tumblr.com.
Zachary Hayes, another volunteer teacher, recently blogged about his sixth graders from Isaac Newton Middle School, in Harlem, NY who created a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and a team fundraising page for their "We Ghana Build a School" project after learning about social engagement as it relates to the digital age.
Citizen Schools results have shown improved performance in core academic courses and high-stakes tests. In fact, achievement data shows that the 6th grade math proficiency rate across Citizen Schools partnership schools increased by 13 percentage points. Reports from program alumni show Citizen Schools students attend seven weeks more high school than their peers, and graduate high school at an increased rate of 20 percent compared to those same peers.
So today, more than ever, our own work, our own collaboration and our own community engagement can aide a vibrant 21st century STEM workforce through mentoring opportunities and informal learning experiences, ultimately lessening the opportunity gap growing between children of affluent families and their lower-income counterparts.