It was about 5 p.m. and inside E. K. Powe Grammar School, an ethnically diverse school in a low-income section of Durham, N.C., things were heating up.  Sporting a blue NetApp golf shirt, Cloud Software Sales Rep Arvell Kiah stood at the front of a classroom, towering over two tables of 20 screaming fourth and fifth graders.  He was holding an index card and was trying read a question to two students, who intently faced each other across a table at the front of the class, their hands poised to be first to hit an answer buzzer.

 

It was the end of a seven-month-long afterschool STEM program conducted by nine NetApp volunteers. Over a pizza snack, the students were playing a game that would show how much they remembered from the once-a-month sessions they had spent learning some simple basics of engineering and the different ways people at NetApp support the company’s engineering efforts. Based on the American gameshow Family Feud, it was named “Afterschool Feud” and Arvell was busy channeling Family Feud host Steve Harvey.

 

The competition was fierce. The teams could see their scores remained almost even on the marker board. As the game progressed, everyone yelled louder.

 

“Volume zero, everyone! I need you to listen to the question,” said Arvell and the room somewhat simmered down. “Alright, what’s something a civil engineer does?”  The two tables erupted in shouts of suggested answers for the team members who were facing off up front.  “Design buildings,” someone finally said.  “Point!” called Arvell.  “Work with blueprints,” suggested a girl from the opposing team.  “We’ll take that!” said Arvell.

 

This final game of the year conveyed some clear messages from the NetApp volunteers to the children they had bonded with throughout the school year. “We wanted these young students to see themselves in STEM—to see that science and math can be fun and enjoyable, that we enjoy it and we believe that they can enjoy it, too,” says Engineering Program Manager Regina Evans. “And we wanted them to remember examples of how STEM contributes to the world around us and how we use the things that we create with STEM.”

 

Above all, the volunteers, many of whom had faced similar challenges as these children, wanted to show they cared enough about the future of these kids to share their own paths to career happiness and success with them. “I knew exactly where these kids were coming from,” Arvell says. “I felt I had a lot to offer because I came from a background where I was socioeconomically deprived. I was that child sitting in that room.”

Why afterschool STEM programs are important

A study conducted by the After School Alliance shows that more than 8 million schoolchildren, often from populations under-represented in STEM careers, take part in these kinds of programs each year.  The study also found that these activities play an ever-growing role in helping students succeed in school and have become a key part of a new “learning ecosystem,” made up of families, peers, afterschool programs and community resources like science centers, libraries and media–all of which can support schoolchildren’s learning.

 

“I think it’s important to get involved with our youth,” says Arvell. “It’s amazing to me to see how education has changed, particularly public education, from the time when I grew up. Teachers are passionate, although the talent pool has diminished. It’s more and more important for us to be that village to help raise a child.”

Helping schools with the greatest need

E.K. Powe Elementary School can certainly benefit from this new “village” effort. Great!Schools.org, a site that aims to help parents find a good education for their child through statistics on each school in their area, shows only 38 percent of Powe students are considered “proficient” in math and 34 percent in reading. Sixty-one percent of Powe’s students are from low-income families and a breakout of their overall performance falls considerably below grade level standards. The Great Schools website, which shows the race and ethnic distribution at Powe as 32 percent Black, 29 percent Hispanic and 34 percent White, notes big differences in performance scores between them and suggests that some student groups may not be getting the support they need to succeed.

Parent reviews on the same website, however, praise the concern and involvement of Powe’s teachers and staff. “E.K. Powe is a small school with a big heart,” says one. “Dedicated teachers and committed parents create a great community for teaching children.”  Another says, “It serves a diverse neighborhood with many interesting programs and is a partner with Duke University to improve student achievement.”

 

E.K. Powe is reaching out for help from the new “learning ecosystem,” and Engineering Program Manager Tamara Nichols Helms heard and answered the call.

 

“I was inspired at the 2016 Grace Hopper Conference after hearing about the decline in unrepresented minorities going into STEM careers,” she said. “I thought this could be an area where NetApp’s commitment to community outreach could make a great impact and maybe even guide a young mind to a STEM field that could be utilized by the NetApp of the future.”

 

Tamara gathered a team of employees with roles ranging from sales to program management to engineering, who could plan and manage a curriculum for a once-a-month afterschool program for 20 of the school’s 4th and 5th graders. All members of the team lauded her tireless efforts in organizing and communicating about the program, coordinating internal meetings, gathering supplies and materials, scheduling time with the school and working with WIT behind the scenes to get the program going.

 

Plans are already underway for the next academic school year, as the kids were eager to know that the group was coming back. Tamara hopes to recruit more NetApp volunteers from all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds to expand these initial efforts into another school and at the Boys and Girls Club of Durham & Orange Counties in 2019.

A good age for STEM learning

Are children in 4th and 5th grades too young for much STEM schooling to sink in?  Along with many education and STEM experts, Senior Engineer Mekka Williams, who has volunteered for a number of other outreach programs for kids of varying ages, believes it is actually a great age to get kids interested before many may start believing STEM is boring or that they don’t have the skills for it.
“At this age, they’re still very eager to learn, open; and not afraid to speak up,” she says. “While older kids don’t want to sound wrong, when you ask kids this age a question, even if they’re not sure of the answer, they’re still okay just yelling it out. That makes it easier to correct them and help them with their thinking process.”

 

But what could–and should–4th and 5th graders be learning about NetApp and STEM?  Above all, the team of volunteers wanted to share the joy of doing something they love and show the kids how the engineering component of STEM makes everyday life better—and how to see commonplace objects, from bridges to TVs, through an engineering lens.

 

The program ran late in the afternoon, at that time of day when kids want to decompress. The volunteers wanted to make the workshops fun and interactive for them through team activities that piqued their curiosity and where they could call on their natural abilities. One assignment was building a tower out of everyday items such as toothpicks, coffee stirrers, gumdrops and marshmallows. The kids received points for building the most stable and the tallest tower. One kid on each team was a designated “manager” who was the only person allowed to talk during construction and give guidance to the team.

 

During this first team exercise, Mekka noticed one girl who moved naturally into the “manager” role and was very comfortable giving her team instruction and reminding them of the rules. Mekka instinctively felt that she would be a great leader, no matter what career path she follows.

 

“She had great ideas about the tower construction as well, so she had the attributes that you look for in technical fields, and engineering, and science–and I would not be surprised if she pursued a STEM career,” says Mekka. “I told her about careers that she could have in the field. I simply encouraged her—and so did all the other team members in the room—we all acknowledged her. Not so much that we made the other kids feel bad, but we definitely let her know she did an outstanding job.”

Both girls and boys need role models

Both female and male volunteers noticed that the boys in the room resonated best with the men from NetApp, beginning with how they greeted them.  “Alright, Suge Knight!” said one boy to Heath Turner, the first time he saw him, referring to the chairman and CEO of Death Row Records who sports a beard similar to Heath’s.  At first glimpse of Arvell’s 6-foot-5 height, another boy called out, “Can you dunk, man?” and invited him to play basketball.

 

The volunteer team is continuing to focus on adding more men.

 

“I recognize that boys tend to respond differently when working with men or when men are present, but by and large, more women tend to volunteer through WIT-sponsored activities like this one,” says KB Programs Project Manager Tymeka Whiteside. “We want to invite to men to volunteer, because boys are different in how they listen and learn.”

 

Arvell believes the most important thing he gave the children was the presence of a positive African American male role model.  After an hour of particular frustration, when Arvell’s young fan was struggling with a challenging assignment, Arvell helped him understand what needed to be done—and also gently reminded him that in life, everyone needs to focus on what they need to do, and that eventually, they will complete the task, even if it isn’t easy.

 

“After the session finished, he came up to me and just gave me a big hug, as a way of saying ‘thank you,’” he said.  “To me, that thunder of silence spoke volumes.  And each of the times we pushed through a challenge in an activity, the amount of joy that came over the children amazed me.”

The poop mobile invention

The most challenging activity, building a miniature, rudimentary self-driving car, was perhaps when the kids truly understood what engineering was all about: Overcoming challenges by trying different approaches. The kids embellished the car with horns (significantly increasing the noise level in the room) and in the following session, built a trailer the car towed.

One team of two boys and a girl went a bit farther than the others.  The team thought up an on-demand service that would send the car to dog walkers and haul away dog poop in the trailer. They placed a small plastic model of the ubiquitous poop emoji icon in the trailer as their finishing touch and proudly named it the “Poop-Mobile.” One certainly would want a poop-mobile to be self-driving.

 

“They were engineering things that were not even on the plans we gave them,” says Heath. “What was most impactful for me was to see their minds open up to the immense amount of possibilities and understand that they have the ability to do more than they’ve ever thought that they could. Before we got there, they may not have ever had that exposure or that thought process.”

 

What Regina Evans learned over the last year is that fifth graders are “pretty smart,” despite circumstances that might impede their academic progress. She says her volunteer work inspires her about the future.

 

“I just think that we all should do our best to give back to the next generation,” she says. “We’re not going to live forever but we have the ability to impact the lives of others who are our future. Going into the schools like this is definitely a good opportunity; you never know what great mind might come out of it.”

Betsey Flood

Betsey Flood’s specialties are strategies, programs and content that enhance company culture. An MBA with a wide-ranging background including consumer and business advertising and both executive and employee communications, she helps companies create and manage programs that boost employee understanding, engagement and sentiment. An author of hundreds of blogs and online articles about all things culture, she is currently working on recognition, philanthropy and communications projects with NetApp, Inc.