In 2013, President Obama issued a presidential mandate to change STEM education in the U.S. by asking STEM professionals to become mentors for underserved and underrepresented students across the country. That mandate eventually became the US2020 program, an initiative whose goal is to change the trajectory of STEM education by getting STEM professionals involved in mentoring youth.
As part of the initiative, 52 cities across the country competed to receive funds to support STEM education and mentoring programs in their local communities. Through the help of Wichita State University, NetApp and 30 other youth-serving organizations and companies in the area, Wichita was chosen as one of seven cities to become a pilot for the grassroots program.
Known locally in Wichita as STEMpact 2020, the organization is working with the Wichita Public Schools, the Catholic Schools of Wichita, Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and several other local youth-serving organizations to interest kids from underrepresented groups—girls, minorities, and low-income—in STEM careers. According to Alex Petersen, the project manager of STEMpact2020, the goal of the program is to increase student interest in STEM subjects by engaging K-12th grade youth with local STEM professionals as mentors. This will increase the quantity and quality of students that pursue STEM careers leading to a greater pool of high quality professionals in the local workforce.
“We need to get students before they decide science isn’t cool,” Alex says. “We need to get them before middle school starts, when everything is cool or not cool and are my friends doing it or not. By engaging in high school or college, it’s way too late for many kids. We need to impact them in middle or elementary school.”
NetApp has been part of STEMpact 2020 from the beginning. Not only was the company instrumental in helping Wichita State apply for the US2020 program but NetApp has an active network of volunteers who have been going into the Wichita schools to mentor students for the past two years. Much of this is thanks to Sheila O’Connor, a program manager for engineering processes at NetApp.
Sheila says she’s “had a passion for getting more women involved in engineering” since the beginning of her own career.
“A lot of women who go into engineering have a father or brother that’s an engineer. I didn’t fit that mold. I was good at math and science but I didn’t know what engineers actually did. One of the things I had the opportunity to do was shadow an engineer in high school. I actually shadowed a person who still works at NetApp today—they were NCR at the time, but I shadowed a guy who’s still at the facility. He showed me the labs so I had a better idea of what engineers did after that. So that’s the seed I’m trying to give back, to give people a better look at what engineers do.”
Sheila, who went on to earn a bachelor’s in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, now coordinates the NetApp volunteers on site. She says they have a group of 10 men and women on site who vied for a spot on their core team and they have at least 25 other mentors who have participated in various activities on behalf of STEMpact 2020 from the site.
NetApp mentors are working with Wichita children from elementary to high school age. As part of one project, mentors are working with the local Girl Scouts chapter to do lunchtime STEM mentoring for elementary school girls who would not otherwise be able to be involved in Girl Scouts, whether for financial or other reasons, such as being bussed to and from school. With the Girl Scouts program, volunteers hold lunchtime “clubs” for students once a week for 40 minutes every quarter. Tish Best, a controller firmware/software developer for NetApp’s HSG group, says that they tend to do a lot of science experiments with girls. For instance, she says they’ve done units on things such as the science of water or energy. Mentors plan hands-on activities for the kids, such as teaching them how rainbows are made or how to make their own rain gauges.
With the high school students, mentors are trying to provide as much real-world experience as possible. Miriam Savage, a software engineer, says they’ve worked on some pretty sophisticated projects with the high schoolers over the past two years. In the first year, they worked with the school district to create a scheduling tool for the HR department. This past year, the students and mentors worked on a utility for the STEMpact project that would allow users to automatically feed spreadsheet data into a database rather than enter the information by hand.
“We built the database and a migration tool,” Miriam says, “and one of the students also put together a reporting tool that they could also use for some reports.”
The advantage for the high school students is that they’re getting a real education in engineering process, Miriam says. Most of them are used to having their computing projects hand fed to them by their teachers, she says. With the mentors, the students must work as a team much more and because they’re doing specific projects, the emphasis is on building something rather than just learning coding languages.
“We’re able to take them through the entire engineering process of working with customers—how do you take a big nebulous idea and break it down and make it a thing—all of those processes. We used Agile program methods because that’s what we use here at work so that they could get a taste for that,” she says.
Mentors are able to also work with students at other levels as well. Tish, for example, has become a frequent classroom speaker going to various schools across the district to talk about STEM careers and what it’s like to be an engineer. Sheila says that the high school students actually come to NetApp’s offices every other week and various managers talk and work with them on different things, from career choices to how to put together and critique a resume.
“I told them I wouldn’t hire any of them because they had spelling errors on their resumes,” Sheila says laughingly. “They had to go fix those.”
The high schoolers have also done site tours at the Wichita facility and have had audiences with “top dude” Robin Huber in one of his famous roundtable sessions. Sheila says the high school students, in particular, can be very entertaining, in part because they just don’t have a lot of filter at that age.
“Sometimes it just cracks me up—they wanted to have lunch and talk to our ‘top dude.’ That’s what they call our Senior Director of Engineering, Robin Huber—our ‘top dude.’ We had drawn the org chart and shown them how many levels up from me he was. He came in and it was great—he had lunch with them and let them ask all these questions but one of them was saying ‘So you’re the top dude and how do you get all these underlings to do what you want them to do?’ We were just cracking up, and Robin said ‘Well, it doesn’t really work like that.’ It’s just fun to see things from a fresh perspective.”
Although STEMpact 2020 is a long-term program, both Alex Peterson and the mentors say they are already seeing an impact.
“What I’ve heard from the kids is that this is fun, it’s exciting. I can’t tell you they’ll all choose to be STEM professionals, but we do know that kids can’t be what they can’t see. Most of our kids have never met or interacted with a real-life STEM professional, so they don’t even know that pursuing a STEM career is an option for them. By engaging STEM professionals with youth as mentors we are giving them that option,” Alex says.
Tish says that she can see the confidence build in the kids as they continue to work on assignments. Although sometimes the problems they’re solving can be tough, they’re proud of themselves when they figure something out.
“You definitely see the light bulbs come on,” she says. “They’ll get up and dance when they get their activity finished. It goes through phases. They can be totally confused at the start and they get frustrated. Then you get them over the hump. This last group definitely didn’t know anything coming in—but they could do a pretty challenging coding assignment by the end. We did a challenge, and they could get prizes. They were pretty impressed even with themselves.”
The program is already having an impact on NetApp. Three of the high school students the team has mentored are now attending Wichita State and studying computer science—and they’re working at NetApp part time while they go to school. Miriam says they’re doing work with the QA department helping with test automation.
Alex says NetApp has been a great example for the community of Wichita, as well.
“I’ve appreciated their leadership and willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of what it can look like to impact our community and go outside of their comfort zone. These professionals are not youth educators or youth professionals but they understand their role in engaging this next generation. I believe they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone and learned alongside of us what it’s like to do that,” he says.
“With Sheila’s leadership, her willingness to engage other groups in this conversation, it’s helped other companies to understand the depths of the impact this could have on our community.”
For Sheila, Tish and Miriam, they get the chance to do things they all enjoy—working with kids, giving back, and encouraging girls and minorities to do the work they love.
“It’s my way of giving back,” Tish says. “I feel like I have a unique way that I can give back to my community and this is something that not a lot of people can do in this way. You think about 50 years from now and how you want to be remembered and this would be something that is important to me. Am I giving back my gift of being good at computing not just to my kids but to everybody? I do believe that for people to be successful they’re going to need to be skilled in computing so I think that our company and our country will be stronger if lots of people go into this field. I think it’s important that everyone help recruit people that might have the skillset to go into this field and encourage them to go into it.”