There is a lot that the average photonics professional can offer a high school, middle school, or even elementary school student by way of sharing knowledge, volunteering time, or simply lending support. But it can be a challenge to get professionals and students in the same room and working together.
Mary Lu Kelley (right), assistant program manager at Oceanit, a diversified science and engineering company in Waimea, HI, was given that exact task.
"It was a challenge from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii's senior senator, to our current county mayor of Kauai, Bryan Baptiste: 'How are you going to create a high-tech labor force?' " explains Kelley. According to Kelley, Inouye was concerned that young Hawaiians who wanted to work in science and technology jobs had to leave the island, whereas in contrast, "a lot of companies here in Hawaii have brought people from the mainland to Hawaii, and the turnover rate is high."
Mayor Baptiste called together Kauai's high-tech companies and gave them the challenge of preparing students for science and technology careers. The companies brainstormed and came up with several different ideas for outreach programs. "One of the ideas that particularly appealed to me was the adopt-a-school program," says Kelley. She volunteered to lead that initiative and to research and develop it.
With the backing of her company, Kelley next approached the then-superintendent of Kauai schools, Daniel Hamada. He agreed to be a co-chair of the program and support the program throughout Kauai's schools.
The Team Tech Kauai adopt-a-school program began during the 2003-2004 school year. High tech companies partnered with elementary schools and agreed to have volunteers spend three to four hours a month with the schools and get involved in some sort of project. Now in its fifth year, it has been a stunning success, with all sides benefiting from the experience.
Hamada says, "Perhaps one middle school student put it best into perspective for me .... She shared that she now understood why learning was important and how it applied to different types of job opportunities."
Of course there have been some bumps along the way. Some businesses didn't know what sort of project to do with students, or had a hard time getting volunteers to go on a regular basis.
One of the biggest obstacles was lack of funding for the projects. In response, the Aloha Ike Fund was created by the local economic development board. Aloha Ike means to love learning. Teachers apply for the fund and must have a business partner.
Members of the Future Scientists and Engineers of America club in Kauai are given a microscope demonstration (left) during a visit to Oceanit's optics lab.
"They have a big fundraiser every summer," says Kelley. "Plus the banks and the developers and the tourist businesses?they all come and pledge an X amount of dollars to this fund. Now we have this fund so when the teachers and their high-tech company partners come up with a project, they don't have to worry about the fundraising."
The Aloha Ike Fund model was so successful that it has now been adopted by the Maui economic development board as well.
"Kauai is one place, one example where no matter what project, whatever company, you can see an example of a village working together," says Hamada.
Oceanit, with just over 100 employees, is one example of a company interacting with its community. (See how Oceanit is Making a Difference) But even when it comes to larger multinational corporations, each local office can reach out to their neighborhood schools.
James Wynne, program manager, local education outreach, of the Thomas Watson IBM Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY), and global coordinator of Engineers Week, has been coordinating programs with local schools since 1990. While also co-developing the excimer laser surgical procedure, he has been in charge of developing and organizing outreach programs for local elementary, middle, and high school kids.
One program is the Family Science Saturdays program, now in its 18th year. "The idea was we would have Saturday morning hands-on science activities for elementary school children and their parents," says Wynne. The program is made up of a series of six lectures: States of Matter, Polymer Science, Kitchen Chemistry, World Wide Web, Introduction to Visual Electronics, and Algorithms.
Wynne says recruiting employees to host the lectures isn't hard. "We have a population here who understands the science and can teach it. And our recruits turn out to be parents, actually, who want their own children to attend."
The program also recruits high school volunteers and trains them how to present the different lectures. "They get community service credits, and they can take the activities that they've learned about back into their own school district and deliver hands-on science workshops in the elementary schools," says Wynne, "so we're sort of spreading this interest in science and involvement to a larger audience by using the high school students as our proselytizers."
In another example of a successful outreach program, when the 3M facility in St. Paul, MN, found out that two high schools near its building were struggling academically, they decided they wanted to help out.
"What we did is we first sat down with the school district offices and got their approval of the strategy," says Barbara Kaufmann, manager of 3M community affairs in St. Paul. "And then we got together with the principals to see if we were wanted, because you don't want to go if you're not wanted. And then we devised a strategy as to what it is we would work on, and we let the schools lead and say how they wanted our help."
That resulted in a tutoring program for students attempting to pass the Minnesota Academic Standards tests. For two weeks before each test, over 100 3M volunteers visit the schools and tutor math, reading, and writing.
"We have a school bus that shows up here at 7:30 on those mornings and takes the tutors to the school, and returns them back to 3M by 8:30," Kaufmann says.
Community Outreach Is Good for Business
So what do employees and businesses get out of all of this effort? Lots.
"There is nothing like the phone call that you get from the student who passed their test that says 'I passed! Thank you!' " says Kaufmann. "Beyond that, people come back and they have new insights about our community. They come back and they are recharged; they just feel like they're very fortunate to be able to be involved."
Wynne agrees. "The employees who do volunteer find it sort of improves their technical vitality," he says. "They learn new things, and they feel good. It's, in a way, sometimes more relaxing than just working at their job."
Kelley says volunteering lets employees show off different skills that they don't get to in their daily jobs. "I was really pleased with one of our software engineers who came to a family science night we had. Usually it's just him and his computer, banging out coding, and you don't really get to know him that well. But then when I got to see him in front of the parents, explaining some of the programs we've done with the kids and the opportunities in the field, and then answering questions …, it was very rewarding, with a nice give and take. The audience liked hearing him and he got to share his interest and passion and career path."
Companies also benefit because they are educating potential future employees, which was Inouye's original challenge to the high tech companies in Hawaii.
"It's all about the pipeline and I think that's something for all companies to be concerned about, their future workforce," Kaufmann notes. However, she also warns it is important to remember the main objective when volunteering. "Everything is focused on the students: Their success, achievement, and readiness for higher education."
Starting A Community Partnership
There are many opportunities for companies to partner with schools. But before an employee shows up on the school's doorstep, there are certain steps to take to ensure success.
Mary Lu Kelley (Oceanit, Waimea, HI) recommends speaking with someone in your company who deals with community involvement first. "Find somebody in your company to ask if they will support you in that venture, and get as high up in your company as possible. If it's coming from the top down, you go a lot further. Otherwise you're just going to be doing it on a volunteer basis after work."
Kelley recommends starting higher up with the school system, also. She partnered with the local superintendent of schools.
"He taught me how to work within the school system and who to contact," says Kelley, "I think that really made a big difference in opening the doors."
What kinds of projects are there?
Many companies have found robotics to be a great idea. James Wynne (IBM, Yorktown Heights, NY) is especially proud of his office's EXITE (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) robotics program for girls, which culminates in a RoboDance contest.
The students enjoy this tremendously, but they also must make robots that don't fall apart and understand the programming so they'll know what the consequences are going to be, Wynne says.
Because it can take a little effort to get the ball rolling, Kelley suggests having a person dedicated to coordinate and support, particularly in the early years.
Former Superintendent of Kauai schools Daniel Hamada says, "Give the teachers and the companies time to meet and compensation for their time." Some companies match employees' volunteer hours with a grant to the schools.
From lectures to tutoring to lab tours, there are many ideas for outreach.
For more ideas, visit SPIE's Teaching Tools page: spie.org/teachingtools
Beth Kelley, no relation to Mary Lu, is a staff editor at SPIE.