Whether they are called guest speakers, mentors, ambassadors, or by any other label, young professionals around the country are sharing their own high school experiences and the choices that led them to their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career paths, and educators have found they can inspire, as well as educate, students.
For clinical laboratory manager Sean Tucker, the American Society of Clinical Pathologists (ASCP) career ambassador program provides an opportunity to stay current on changes in the field of education while pursuing his laboratory career. “I always wanted to be a high school teacher,” he says, adding he hopes to pursue a second career in education eventually. As a career ambassador, Tucker estimates he spoke to 250 students last year. “In my presentation, I start with the science behind what we do, go through the technology, and explain how it relates to us in the lab and [other health fields]. There’s lots of discussion relating present topics and medicine.” He discusses preparing for college and career options in lab technology. ASCP provides brochures and other information to ambassadors, who are expected to make contacts in their communities and arrange presentations.
“It was always my intention to stay in the field of science. I didn’t know about this field until my junior year of college,” adding a year to his education program, he recalls. Tucker now shares ASCP statistics on career prospects with his high school audiences.
“He came to talk to students about clinical lab science, showed different kinds of agar, media. He brought equipment from lab to show them,” recollects Brenda Bott, teacher and coordinator of the Shawnee Mission School District’s Biotechnology Signature Program at Shawnee Mission West High School in Shawnee, Kansas. “The kids loved it. …I learned a lot…to pass on to students and to help advise them on different career fields,” she says. “After his presentation, students hung out and asked Sean questions” about his career path, which allowed him to work in a science field without pursuing a doctorate. In addition, “Sean, as part of the ambassador program, was able to get my students in a job shadow for the first time.”
“I really connected with (Bott) and her students, and I have been able to connect them with [Shawnee Mission Medical Center],” Tucker notes. “I was able to…bring in students and put them through six-week rotations at my hospital lab—show them the technology and automation in our profession that allows us to capture those scientific results, and show them how that relates to patient care.”
Through his ASCP ambassador experience, Tucker met several teachers. He explains, “I had a wonderful time participating, and made connections in my community. [The program] poses the idea of science and health care, how important it is for the next generation, how it relates to [the] community, and how it relates to [students] financially.”
Many students understand success in Advanced Placement (AP) classes not only looks good on college applications, but can yield tangible rewards in college, such as lower tuition. But AP classes also offer less-obvious “intangibles,” says Kevin McCullough, an operations finance manager at Thermo Scientific Environmental & Process Instruments in Franklin, Massachusetts. Through his employer, McCullough volunteers as part of the STEM Ambassador program of the Mass Math + Science Initiative (MMSI).
While students see “very clear practical benefits of AP, I’m an example of how the intangibles of what AP classes offer can also yield both personal and professional benefits. Looking back, AP classes helped me develop good time-management, critical-thinking, and complex problem–solving skills; gave me a lot of confidence heading into my freshman year of college; and have served me well ever since,” McCullough explains. “As a STEM Ambassador, I will not be a formal counselor or teacher, but rather a real-world example of someone who has been in their shoes and achieved success through AP courses and STEM.”
“It’s one thing to hear [about the value of AP courses] from a parent, one thing to hear from [a] teacher or guidance counselor, but it’s another to [hear it from] a third person,” contends Mort Orlov, MMSI president. MMSI receives a grant from the National Math and Science Initiative to increase student participation in AP courses. One way MMSI accomplishes this is through public–private partnerships that bring mentors like McCullough into schools.
Thermo Fisher Scientific wanted to do more than “simply provide a financial contribution,” says Taryn Corbino, corporate social responsibility manager at Thermo Fisher. Through the STEM Ambassador Program, Thermo Fisher is supplying funding as well as mentors who completed AP courses in high school and can share their experiences and career paths with students. Ambassadors participated in Thermo Fisher’s Graduate Leadership Development Program. “Our employees can be an inspiration and serve as mentors to [help students] get through this [AP course] so the students can see what kind of careers are on the other side,” she adds. “We look at this as further career development for [employees’ management skills].”
Five mentors were matched with nearby schools. Corbino says, “We’re excited about it; we hope to expand further next year.”
For Tom Norton, a mathematics teacher at Bellingham High School, in Bellingham, Massachusetts, the STEM Ambassador program “seems like a worthwhile program for students interested in math and maybe going in their careers in a math and science direction.” After meeting with a Thermo Fisher representative, he “got excited to be able to show students in my classes how math is used outside the classroom.”
McCullough will visit Norton’s class at least six times during this academic year. Norton says McCullough’s presentations will be “an addition [to the curriculum] to get students interested in how math is used in the ‘real world.’” He hopes to “step it up eventually to where [McCullough] can bring problems for students to work on and solve.”
“I’ve always been very passionate about improving STEM at the high school level,” McCullough asserts.
STEM Ambassadors is part of MMSI’s Student Partners program, which “helps make connections [among] our funders’ talented staff,” explains Orlov. (For more information on MMSI, visit www.massinsight.org/mmsi.) “Last year in the state of Massachusetts, if you look at AP, 51% of [math, science, and English] exams taken by low-income students were taken by students in our schools. We’re democratizing access.” He states MMSI is working on a “fundamental cultural change” to increase AP participation, noting in “a knowledge-based economy, our natural resources are our kids.”