Citizen Schools volunteer Sean Belka teaches kids at a school in Dorchester, Mass. to be budding web designers.
There’s lots of evidence that our students are falling behind in the STEM subjects. But should we care?
As a society concerned with progress and improving the lives of our fellow citizens, we should care deeply. STEM skills are essential to the medical and technological breakthroughs that enable us to cure and manage diseases and to improving the ways people communicate and work together. Equally important, these skills are often the pathway to a fulfilling and rewarding career; enabling people to make a good living, while truly contributing to the well-being of their fellow citizens.
So what can we do about it?
I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive solution to this important issue. What I do have is my own personal experience volunteering with Citizen Schools, a national education nonprofit, as a Citizen Teacher at the Dever McCormack School in Dorchester, MA.
Our children are practical. If they don’t see the value in learning something, many are less likely to fully engage. What Citizen Schools does is enable people like me to show middle school students how they might apply STEM skills in an interesting and rewarding career. And, while it’s far-fetched for me as a middle-aged suburban guy to say it makes STEM cool, it definitely helps make STEM relevant.
My experience started with my employer, Fidelity Investments. Not only did they provide financial support to Citizen Schools, they enabled me to take time each week to be in a classroom teaching an apprenticeship.
So what did I do? Working with one of my Fidelity colleagues and a Citizen Schools staff person, we ran a web design apprenticeship. Students created their own websites. They learned how to use email, web development templates and content management tools. They thought through what they wanted their website to be and how it would reflect on them. They learned how to work with others and on their own to build something, and then, they came to Fidelity’s Center for Applied Technology to present their work to their fellow students, their families and people from Fidelity and the community. They presented their work with obvious competence and pride. They amazed everyone, including at some level, themselves. And I can tell you they felt that being seen as a web designer made them feel pretty cool.
So what did we accomplish?
Sure, the students learned some new skills, and that’s great. But more importantly, they now understand how STEM skills can open new worlds to them and provide them options they didn’t even know existed. Will most of these students become web designers? Not likely. But do they now see the link between fully engaging in STEM in the classroom and their own futures? Absolutely.
To me, that is the real opportunity here. Kids connected to learning in a visceral and real way—seeing it as part of their lives and their (and our!) future. Now that’s pretty cool.
Sean Belka is senior vice president, director of Fidelity Center for Applied Technology (FCAT), a unit of Fidelity Investments. He also volunteers with Citizen Schools, where he taught a workshop on web design to sixth and seventh graders in Dorchester, Mass. last spring.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.