Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.
What is more frightening? Having to present a PowerPoint to your manager about the merits of you leading a new project or getting in front of a classroom of 30 sixth graders and talking about why your job should interest them? If you are like most of us, you didn't get training in college or on the job on how to effectively present to youth. If you want to be an effective role model you may need some guidance, whether you are new to outreach or have years of experience.
For the past 13 years Techbridge has supported volunteers like you in outreach in the classroom and on field trips to universities and corporate sites. Based in Oakland, California, Techbridge is a nonprofit devoted to inspiring girls in science, technology, and engineering. We offer girls opportunities to work on projects like designing apps, making wind turbines, and creating their very own electronic game board. Through these projects, Techbridge girls work with tools and develop confidence and perseverance that serve them well in their academic and career paths.
Each year we conduct focus groups to better understand our program's impact. At the end of our first year of programming, we heard from the girls that while they enjoyed the hands-on projects, they regarded them as "hobbies." Since engineering and technology careers can be abstract to youth who don't know what to visualize in these fields, we looked to professionals in the field as role models to help make the connection to careers.
We learned a lot from our early attempts working with role models and are grateful for their help in developing a training model and resources. I'd like to share our lessons learned, which are the "secret sauce" of Techbridge, and so important for successful experiences for youth and role models.
Kids are eager to hear about your personal hobbies, family, friends, and pets as well as your work. You can dispel stereotypes and break down the generation divide by making a personal connection with these topics. In advance of a visit, send your bio so that the group can find out interesting information about you including that you played soccer in middle school, enjoy Mexican food, and liked taking things apart when you were little. Invite the group to share information about themselves too so that you can relate your discussion to their interests.
In your introduction, share photos and artifacts that highlight your interests. Do you like to travel? Show and tell about a favorite vacation. Talk about how knowing a second language is an asset on your travels and in your work. This will build confidence in students who feel uncomfortable that English isn't their first language. Do you play a sport or musical instrument? Share how practice and perseverance in these pursuits have helped you in school and on the job. Personal stories at the start of your visit will help you engage with the group and make you more approachable. Remember that by connecting with you, it will be easier for kids to connect with your work.
Share Your Passion
How can you make waste water treatment interesting to a group of middle school girls? Meet mechanical engineer Lyn Gomes whose job is to design systems that treat dirty water. I was skeptical at first how waste water treatment would inspire our girls, but Lyn taught us what it takes to be a successful role model.
Lyn communicates her passion for engineering and for our girls. She loves her work and gushes about the projects she's supported. When Lyn gets excited about her work, our girls do too. In fact, at the end of a visit with Lyn, we often hear from Techbridge girls how they want to grow up and do what Lyn does. Lyn shares that while this kind of interaction--sharing the passion--isn't common in the workplace, it is essential when she's a role model to youth.
Communicate How You Make the World a Better Place
How can you connect with kids and their desire to make a difference in their community? Meet Heather Fleming. Heather is a mechanical engineer who started her own company, Catapult Design, to alleviate poverty and create social impact through design. Learning how Heather makes low-cost wind turbines for off-grid villages in Guatemala and pushcarts for farmers in Tanzania inspires her young audiences. Heather transformed her philanthropic efforts into her career and talks about how important it is to do work that allows her to do good and have an impact.
Many kids, and girls especially, want to know that they can make a difference and alleviate problems through the career path they take. Whether you make that difference through your day job or volunteer efforts with Engineers Without Borders or Habitat for Humanity, kids will be eager to understand how your work matters and that they can make the world a better place like you.
Make it Hands-on
How can you offer a glimpse into your career with an interactive and engaging activity? You will be most successful as a role model by engaging kids in a hands-on activity that offers a snapshot of your field of study or work. It may not be exactly what you do on the job, but the activity can draw kids in and offer a way for them to experience elements of what you do. For example, Carrie Kelly, a chemical engineer at Clorox, may not make bouncy balls--the activity she leads with students--but she does design and test formulas and carefully record results. For younger kids especially, it is important to do more than talk.
Offer Resources and Academic Guidance
A good role model provides her audience with ideas and resources to follow up on. Meet Patty Legaspi, an Engineering Manager at Google. Patty knew that she loved playing video games like Oregon Trail when she was in middle school but did not see how to connect her gaming with the rewarding career that she has. Lucky for Patty counselors and teachers took notice of her potential and advised her on how to apply to college and fund her education.
While some kids are fortunate to receive guidance at home and school to help them chart their academic path, many are not. Role models like Patty fill a critical void by sharing the resources that helped them become the success they are today. You can share the value of a study group that helped you get through algebra in eighth grade. Was there a summer program that helped you discover a passion and personal strength? Encourage kids to make the most of summer and seek out classes and internships to help them find their passion and explore new talents. Where can they go to tinker and work with tools? In our community, there are libraries that lend tools and museums that offer hands-on exploration. Find resources like a library or community center where kids can work on science and tech projects. Who have been important mentors in your life? Share how you found adults who helped you along your way through the good times and the challenges.
Remember Practice Make Perfect
Even with years of experience, we learn from each encounter between a role model and the girls in our after-school programs. I encourage you to regard each of your role model experiences as an opportunity to learn. Save time at the end of your visit and invite feedback. Let the group know that you want to learn what worked well and especially want to know what to do differently next time. If the group is reluctant to offer constructive feedback, you might start the conversation and offer up a suggestion of your own like, "Next time I'll try and make my introduction a little shorter. I think I was nervous at the start and talked a little too long before we started the activity." Here is your chance to highlight the growth mindset and share out about how we can learn from our mistakes and work hard to improve.
We know that not every girl or boy who is touched by a role model will grow up to be a programmer or engineer, but we hope that each will learn from the experience of meeting you and expand his or her options. We have seen firsthand how impactful role models can be for kids, especially for girls and those who are underrepresented in engineering and technology. There are a lot more kids who need a supportive adult to encourage them. We invite you to get involved and reach out to kids in your community. You have the power to inspire the next generation.
- Help bring your passion and life experiences to a group of kids in your neighborhood school or community center. The Coalition for Science After School offers a searchable database with STEM programs across the nation, where you can find a program that is looking for a role model like you. http://www.afterschoolscience.org
- Volunteers play an important role in 4-H, the nation's largest youth development program serving more than 6 million. Find out how you can support a club in an urban neighborhood, suburban schoolyard, or rural farming community. http://www.4-h.org/information-for/volunteers/
- Contact your local Girl Scout council and offer to lead an activity and be a role model for a troop or council event. Girl Scouts support girls in a variety of settings including after-school programs, housing projects, and summer camps. To find a council in your community, visit http://www.girlscouts.org/councilfinder/
- Spark provides one-on-one hands-on apprenticeships for youth from disadvantaged communities. As a mentor, you'll host a middle school student at your workplace and teach them about what you do, inspire their curiosity, and help them fulfill their dreams. Get involved at http://www.sparkprogram.org/
- Citizen Schools partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities across the country. Find out how you can volunteer and become a mentor in one of their apprenticeship programs. For information, http://www.citizenschools.org
- The National Girls Collaborative Project supports collaboration across girl-serving organizations. Check out the project's directory for resources and organization needs for groups that promote gender equity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. http://www.ngcproject.org/
Techbridge empowers girls by inspiring them in science, technology, and engineering. Techbridge has served over 10,000 girls in after-school and summer programs in the San Francisco Bay Area and nationally through partnerships with Girl Scout councils and other girl-serving groups. For more information about Techbridge, visit www.techbridgegirls.org. Techbridge partners with leading technology, science, and engineering firms around the San Francisco Bay Area to introduce girls to role models who lead hands-on projects, share inspiring stories, and provide academic and career guidance. If you can't attend an in-person training, Techbridge offers a Role Model Resource Guide and Toolkit. These can be downloaded for free at http://www.techbridgegirls.org/RoleModels.aspx. Please follow up and let us know about your experiences with outreach. We would like to learn with you.