By: Kellie M. Walsh & W.M. Akers | posted November 14, 2016
In 2014, the New York Academy of Science's Education Department reached the limits of time and space. Thanks to a $2.95 million National Science Foundation grant, the department's STEM mentoring program was working with 3,000 children annually across the New York region, from the farthest reaches of the outer boroughs to the classrooms of Newark, New Jersey. The governor of Connecticut had asked the department to bring that mentoring program to New Haven, while the mayor of Barcelona and the prime minister of Malaysia had extended invitations to take the program overseas. But Connecticut, Barcelona and Malaysia were only the beginning.
"Corporate and government heads of state became really interested in the work we were incubating here in New York," says Senior Vice President of Education Dr. Meghan Groome, "and kept asking us over and over again, 'How do we bring this to our kids?'"
When Academy President Ellis Rubinstein mentioned Dr. Groome's after-school mentoring programs during a speech at a United Nations event, the ambassadors from a dozen countries surrounded him, asking for the Academy to come their way. The Academy's mentoring program had changed thousands of lives across the New York area. Now it had a chance to change the world.
"In their first year, these programs have reached students for whom a career at the forefront of STEM was only a dream, and shown them that anything is possible."
But how could the Academy scale up its unique mentoring program, which is built around close contact between STEM-trained mentors and their bright young mentees? And, at the same time, how could it use that program to patch the leaks in the global STEM pipeline, helping women, members of ethnic minorities and people from low-income or rural backgrounds get a leg up in the field?
Enter the Global STEM Alliance. Its mission: to eventually reach one million students in one hundred countries. "We needed to be able to expand our programs in a way that anybody in the world could join," says Groome. "In order to do that, we needed to invest in technology and people who knew a lot about tech."
Achieving the GSA's mission would mean blazing new trails in online engagement, harnessing social media and groundbreaking new technology in order to replicate the face-to-face mentoring that has made the Academy's programs such a success. In a single year, the GSA went from nothing but an ambitious idea to a truly global initiative, as the Academy attracted more than 230 partners in fifty countries, a truly astonishing achievement. And in the fall of 2015, the GSA launched two pilot programs designed to use those partnerships for real change: The Junior Academy and 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures.
Serving students ages 13 through 19, the programs teach the hard and soft skills necessary for a STEM career, offering skill-building exercises, international networking, mentorship and personal access to STEM professionals. In their first year, these programs have reached students for whom a career at the forefront of STEM was only a dream, and shown them that anything is possible.
An International Junior Academy
Nineteen-year-old Olayemi Toba majors in industrial chemistry at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, and plans to pursue a career in medicine. He believes that his high school science classes spent too much time teaching him how to take tests, and not enough time giving him the practical instruction that a STEM career requires. To acquire the knowledge and proficiency to succeed in science as a vocation, not just a subject, he joined The Junior Academy. An international reimagining of the original Junior Academy, a New York-based student-run high school program which ran from the 1970's to the 1980's, the new Junior Academy starts with Research 101, a three-month boot camp in scientific practices adapted from a graduate-level course.
"The 101 course was just excellent," says Toba. "It goes beyond even science, and makes you able to create work that will conform to the standards of the scientific community."
Following Research 101, the students joined in international teams to compete in a 60-day innovation challenge. Led by their mentors, who engaged with them during weekly video chats, students worked in small teams to imagine, prototype and present a solution to a real-world global issue. The GSA's investment in social media technology let the students coordinate seamlessly across continents in a way that had never been possible before.
The winners of the Food Loss and Waste Challenge, for instance, featured teammates from Tanzania, Morocco, the United States and China, who worked together to design a cost-effective, eco-friendly water bottle under the supervision of a Nigerian-based mentor. It's that kind of international cooperation, Toba believes, that makes The Junior Academy special.
"It's very good to have different cultures involved," he says, "because we bring different experiences and different knowledge."
The program serves students often overlooked by their schools, whom Senior Vice President of Digital Learning Solutions Celina Morgan-Standard describes as "passionate, driven, [and who] have demonstrated aptitude and grit in STEM." They represent "the STEM innovators and leaders of the future," she says, "and are crucial to helping society at large address some of the world's greatest challenges."
Response to The Junior Academy's launch was overwhelming. For its inaugural class of 250, the Academy received more than 2,000 applications from 104 countries. Perhaps the most impressive statistic? In an industry where women are sorely underrepresented, almost 80% of the applicants were girls. And, now entering its second year, the number of applicants has more than doubled.
Advancing 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures
Eighteen-year-old Kehinde Lawal is one of the first generation in her family to apply for college.
As a senior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Lawal took high-school and college courses simultaneously. She participated in multiple extracurricular enrichment programs and planned to pursue a dual BS/MD degree to become an OB-GYN. But when it came to the college application process, she says, "I had completely no idea how to do it."
"I wanted someone that already went through the whole process of medical school and has a career in the medical field," she says, "who could advise me on what to do, how to apply, and the best ways to write my essay. I was looking for the mentorship."
Launched with an initial cohort of 278 girls in nineteen countries, 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures is a twelve month program that matches teenage girls with female STEM experts. Modeled on the Academy's first virtual mentoring effort, the State Department-sponsored NeXXt Scholars, 1000 Girls supports female students at a pivotal time in their academic careers.
Many students, regardless of gender, drop out of the STEM pipeline in high school. But girls in particular are less likely to receive the encouragement and opportunity necessary to pursue STEM. Come high school, says Groome, "there's not a lot of room for a girl to be super-cool and popular and also to be a nerdy STEM kid."
1000 Girls aims to change that conversation, and Lawal—who enters the City College of New York biochemistry program this fall—represents a first step. The 1000 Girls curriculum helped her master the college application process, and the one-on-one mentorship gave Lawal invaluable personal attention. Her mentor coached her on how to make her applications stand out and critiqued all six of Lawal's college essays.
"...girls in particular are less likely to receive the encouragement and opportunity necessary to pursue STEM."
The program also afforded once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, such as an event with Bill and Melinda Gates, where students discussed what superpowers they would like to have.
"A lot of people said invisibility," says Lawal, "but then we got in depth about what the world really needs. The world needs more innovators, more thinkers, so a lot of people were like, I would want a power that could end world hunger. I would want a power that could manage fossil fuels."
The conversation generated "a lot of weird, smart ideas," and that's what 1000 Girls is all about, she added.
Like Lawal, 1000 Girls mentor Zuleyma Peralta was the first in her family to attend college. Now a PhD candidate at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, Peralta says she was not just on her own while trying to make sense of the undergraduate college application process: she was also getting the runaround. As an undocumented immigrant who emigrated from Mexico when she was six years old, she was told—incorrectly—that she wasn't allowed to attend college in the U.S.
Peralta became a mentor in part to help women like her avoid that kind of runaround. "I think one of the main deterrents of [the college] application is not knowing what to do or feeling lost. I certainly felt that," she says, adding, "If my experience could benefit somebody else, I wanted to be able to pass that on."
Such encouragement is essential to convincing bright young girls to stick with STEM, and Peralta leads by example, both as a mentor and as a minority woman. "When people think of a scientist, they think of an older white man with messy hair, but they don't really think of a person of color or a woman," she says. "It's nice to introduce those faces and that background, and change that picture."
The Power of Partners
Although they are sometimes in the background, the GSA would not be possible without its extensive network of partners, who are drawn from different fields across the globe.
"If there's one thing I've learned over the past year, it's that we as an organization are really good at managing complex partnerships," says Groome. "The GSA represents an investment in technology, but also an investment in partnership management and all the different pieces that go into it."
PepsiCo Foundation and ARM, for example, worked with The Junior Academy to sponsor and design the inaugural innovation challenges. Both companies enlisted employees as project coaches, who worked with students to understand the real-world implications of their designs. 1000 Girls, similarly, has mentees working one-on-one with mentors from partners like ARM and AOL.
Partners make it possible to provide The Junior Academy and 1000 Girls programs for free. But partnering with the Academy, says Morgan-Standard, is beneficial to partners as well.
In addition to developing employees' analytic, communication, and leadership skills by engaging them as mentors, partnership connects companies with new ideas and a large pool of young, ambitious mentees and mentors. By investing financial support and talent in these programs, Morgan-Standard says, partners strengthen their current workforce, develop a STEM pipeline, and "identify the future talent that will be leaders in their companies."
No surprise then that over fifty companies have joined the Global STEM Alliance doing amazing things: Motorola sponsors girls in Saudi Arabia and Oman, Goldman Sachs' women will mentor girls in Warsaw, J&J employees will mentor children in Rwanda and South Africa, and the list goes on.
New Solutions to Global Challenges
Creating a global mentoring program from the ground-up in just a year was bound to come with some growing pains, as mentors and students dealt with—and overcame—surprising obstacles. Communication was sometimes a problem, although Toba says his team was able to break through the language barrier by speaking in English. Scheduling meetings across time zones was tricky, and students sometimes had trouble with the GSA's technology.
"[The students] use very different technology than we make available to them," says Groome. "So when we rolled out the platform, which looks a lot like Facebook, they were like, 'Can we use Whatsapp? Can we use Snapchat?' To them it felt old-timey."
The challenge most cited by program participants, however, was internet access.
"[Some students] may have a computer," Groome says, "but they may not have Internet access. They may have a phone, and it may be a smartphone, but it may not have a data plan. There are pockets of students who don't have the phone or the computer plus the Internet access."
Even a smartphone with data doesn't guarantee success. Groome cites a student in the South Bronx who must squeeze her homework into a limited data plan or wait in long lines at the local library for a computer—an unsafe option in her neighborhood after dark.
The Academy tailors the programs as much as possible so students with limited technology can still benefit. But making do requires the creativity of program, participants, and partners alike.
"We've seen all sorts of interesting adaptations to try to make it work," says Groome. "In Puebla, Mexico, the girls every Saturday get on a bus and go to the local state-run education hub to get on the computers all day."
In South Africa, where Internet connectivity can be unreliable, the South African Young Academy of Sciences, a GSA partner, allows mentees and mentors to use the organization's computer terminals on Saturdays. The students' willingness to adapt is a testament to their drive, determination and commitment to their futures in STEM.
A Resounding Success — and More to Come
By every metric, The Junior Academy and 1000 Girls have been a fabulous success. 55% of Junior Academy students had completed Research 101 by the year's halfway point—a number that makes Morgan-Standard very happy. "If you think about Research 101 as a massive open online course [MOOC], which is what it is," she says, "a 55% completion rate is really high. The average MOOC completion rate is 7%."
Of those students, 100% showed improvements in research skills, with assessment scores increasing 32% on average. All students showed improvements in communication, critical thinking, and creativity. By the end of the innovation challenges, 85% of challenge participants reported an increase in leadership skills.
1000 Girls' retention numbers suggest similar high success. Of the more than 500 mentees and mentors enrolled in the program, more than 90% remained active participants halfway through the program year.
Morgan-Standard credits the social component as key to the programs' success. Especially for girls and students who might feel socially isolated otherwise, these virtual dialogues provide a safe space to both "feel comfortable and confident in shining their STEM skills," says Morgan-Standard, and "geek out about seismic data and mathematical models," says Product Manager of Digital Learning Solutions Anthony Nguyen.
In late July, the two programs culminated in the Academy's first annual Global STEM Alliance Summit, a two-day event bringing students, mentors, and partners together to meet, participate in career-oriented workshops and panel discussions, and celebrate the winners of The Junior Academy innovation challenges.
The most important part of this process, says Nguyen, is "learning they're a part of this international global community. Learning about people outside their own little bubbles, and how to collaborate, connect, and communicate with one another."
"A lot of them are focusing on their own communities," says Education Program Manager Carla Y. Emanuele-Giza, "and then looking outside themselves and asking, 'If I had to deal with this problem in this world, then what is my thinking?'"
Embracing new perspectives leads to camaraderie, but even the program organizers were surprised by how strongly these online connections translate into real-life bonds. When fifty mentees from almost a dozen countries met for the first time at an event in New York City last February, for example, Nguyen was astonished by how the students gelled, taking selfies and exchanging Snapchats "like they were best friends."
Through those ties, students expand their professional networks and establish their role in the global equation. "What this community is, and can continue to be, is a place for all of us to explore ideas," Emanuele-Giza says, "where [the students] understand that they're working together to be part of the solution."
And just imagine when this generation of children become the mentors of the generations behind them—an inspiring goal for the 199-year-old New York Academy of Science's third century.
Kellie M. Walsh is a freelance writer, web producer, and content strategist in New Jersey.
W.M. Akers is a playwright, and features editor at Narratively.
Top Photo: Students from the GSA appear on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts (seated, left) and Bill and Melinda Gates (seated, right and center).