US2020: Creating Opportunities for STEM Mentoring within Municipal Government

ARTICLE | Mar 10, 2016

In 2014, the Mayor’s Office of Education and the City’s Grants Office submitted an application for Philadelphia to be considered a host city for US2020’s STEM mentoring initiative; the Office of Innovation & Technology (OIT) agreed to pilot the program if the city was chosen. Because of our proven record of success managing the KEYSPOT program, a network of over 50 free public computing centers located around Philadelphia, and our unit’s goal of delivering innovative, digital literacy programming and education to underserved communities, we were a natural fit for organizing and developing this unique mentoring initiative.

During the spring of 2015, Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation & Technology’s Innovation Management team spearheaded a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) mentoring program co-sponsored by US2020, a national movement charged with engaging one million STEM mentors in youth programming by the year 2020. Over the course of our eight week program, 6th – 8th graders from a public middle school learned about municipal government, careers in technology and worked with 15 OIT employees to develop plans for a hypothetical “cool school” of the future using real-world skills and examples from our portfolios.

Our STEM mentoring initiative was innovative due to three main factors. First, we developed a program, not just an event. We immersed the students in an 8-week long “course” and collectively worked towards a common goal – designing a “cool school of the future.” Second, our mentors remained interested and involved for the duration of the program. The majority of the mentors attended multiple sessions besides the one they were responsible for leading, and many of them formed meaningful relationships with the students. Thirdly, we created a customizable curriculum that provided a standard framework for each session, while still allowing each mentor to tailor his or her session to the unique needs of their specific topic.

While STEM mentoring programs are relatively common in the non-profit sector and private sectors, it is rare that city government is the driving force behind this type of initiative. We challenged ourselves and our colleagues to think about how we could truly engage with and best serve our clients –the citizens of Philadelphia – using our existing infrastructure and networks. The success of the KEYSPOT computing centers proved that Philadelphians, especially young people, wanted and needed more access to technology and trainings, and provided a strong platform from which we could launch our US2020 program.

While it has been a resounding success, there were challenges. The most significant obstacles that we encountered over the course of implementing these initiatives were finding an appropriate “framing project” for the pilot and ensuring that our colleagues had enough time in their work schedules to participate in this type of program. We knew that in order to create a sense of continuity between each session, we needed to have an overarching theme for the pilot – however, it was difficult to decide on a challenge that connected with each of the OIT units represented. Ultimately, we decided that the “cool school” was specific enough to provide a framework for the sessions, but fluid enough that teams ranging from open data to public computing could find a way to connect with the students.

Although we were initially concerned that the mentors in our STEM mentoring program would struggle to find time in their schedules to participate in an 8-week long program, we were surprised that so many of them decided to prioritize this initiative in their work flow. Our colleagues were incredibly invested in ensuring the success of this program, and we had high attendance and participation for the duration of the pilot; what we anticipated being a challenge ultimately was a nominal barrier.

Additionally, municipal government tends to function in a very siloed fashion, and getting departments to work together is often a challenge. In this situation, our program succeeded because it was a collaboration in which all parties committed themselves equally. The Office of Innovation and Technology’s Innovation Management unit is the primary initiator and driver of this initiative, although the original grant was submitted by the Mayor’s Office of Education in tandem with the City’s Grants Office. Two of OIT’s most important goals are to expand the City’s internal capacity for innovation through cross-departmental collaboration, and to increase opportunities for digital literacy learning. The US2020 program clearly allowed us to focus on both of those efforts, and we were eager to take ownership of the initiative.

As stated, the STEM mentoring program involved partners from both inside and outside government. Not only did OIT work closely with other City departments, but we facilitated meaningful cooperation and communication between OIT units that often do not interact with one another. Additionally, we formed a high-impact relationship with the Chester A. Arthur School and will continue to work with staff and students as we develop the second round of this pilot program.

Our program had two key groups of stakeholders – the students and the mentors – and US2020 collected limited, but helpful, information about all program participants. All of the mentors who completed the appropriate evaluations cited high levels of satisfaction with the program and noted that they ultimately were more engaged with the sessions and the students than they initially anticipated being. All of the mentors indicated that they would like to participate in further programs like this, and that they would recommend this opportunity to a colleague.

Based on conversations and surveys, we can also ascertain that the students themselves enjoyed the program. Although some of them noted that some of the sessions were less engaging than others, and some of the mentors talked too much, the majority of the young people noted that they are now more interested in technology and have a greater understanding about what types of careers involve STEM topics.

It is also worth noting that due to the overwhelming success of this program, we have already begun planning a second iteration of our pilot that will re-engage some of the students from the first cohort in a “co-teaching” capacity, as well as help us recruit new students.

We believe that our mentoring program is highly replicable for a number of reasons. The program was very low cost; developing the program outline and lesson plans required no financial investment to create other staff time. Additionally, the framework we developed can be adapted to fit departments of varying sizes, focuses and staff capacity; jurisdictions have the ability to truly implement a mentoring program that fits their unique capacity, while using our program as a guide.

To learn more about Philadelphia’s program and success, as well as how that could apply to your community, join us at TLG 2016 in St. Paul, MN in June. Registration is now open!

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