by Melanie Plenda
Joseph Perez says people sometimes get the wrong idea about him. See, in his mind, he knows math. He knows science. But sometimes finding the English words for all those myriad whirling, swirling facts and imaginings can be challenging.
"It's kind of frustrating," the 16-year-old Memorial High School student says. Perez emigrated from Puerto Rico five years ago and English is his second language. "Being underestimated because of your language, having people see your language instead of seeing what you are capable of doing, is very frustrating."
But officials with UNH Manchester's STEM Discovery Lab and STEM Ambassadors program are hoping to change that for students like Perez, who is one of several English Language Learning students taking part in the program. STEM Ambassadors is a year-long math program which takes place on-site at Manchester's Memorial and Central High schools that helps academically at-risk, English Language Learner (ELL) students, their families and educators. STEM Ambassadors will expand to all three Manchester High Schools in the near future
"Introducing children and teens at an early age to STEM subjects opens the doors to endless educational and career opportunities," says J. Michael Hickey, Interim Dean at UNH Manchester. "The UNH STEM Discovery Lab will help to inspire students to become the next generation of scientists, engineers, computing professionals and mathematicians."
Comcast's Internet Essentials Program, which is partnering with UNH Manchester to offer the program, recently held an event that brought together teachers from across the state along with state and local officials, aimed at raising awareness of the program and its goal to close the digital divide.
"I can't tell you how pleased Comcast is to partner with this amazing and groundbreaking program and moving forward with students to provide information and an amazing opportunity to grow and to help us bridge our workforce gap and eventually bridge the digital divide," says Rebecca Fracassa, Director of Community Investment and a Comcast Internet Essentials Representative. In addition to being a partner in the program, Comcast donated Chromebooks to the first set of Ambassadors to go through the program.
Dr. Mihaela Sabin, associate professor of Computer Science and the Faculty Director of the UNH STEM Discovery Lab explained that there is a growing chasm for opportunities in STEM fields when it comes to underrepresented populations which include immigrant, low-income, English Language Learning and female students.
"There is a social justice factor that makes this kind of program important," says Sabin. "But also, if we do not fix this problem now, there will not be enough STEM graduates to meet the demand. There will continue to be a gap between jobs and graduates."
US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen attended the event and spoke of the importance of this program.
"STEM education is critical to the future of young people, it's critical to New Hampshire to the country," says Shaheen. "It's what we have to do to stay competitive."
Shaheen says that it's estimated that twice the number of jobs are being created in the STEM fields as there are graduates to fill them and that by 2018, there will be the need for 43,000 new graduates just to fill the jobs in New Hampshire.
"This kind of program is really a model for the rest of the country on how we can better engage young people."
The STEM Ambassadors program is a new, bold and comprehensive model aimed at bridging that gap. To that end, the STEM Discovery Lab will work as a team with Manchester educators on-site, in an effort to support students in grades 9-11 who are currently struggling in Math.
"What we do is co-develop a curriculum with teachers," says Sabin. "It's for teachers to join with us to come up with creative, research-based curriculum that is culturally responsive. Such that teachers can confidently take it back to the classroom. So we are experimenting and learning together."
Dr. Lauren Provost, Research Assistant Professor in Education, Director of the STEM Ambassadors program, who has been working with the high school students, says that they will work with teachers to specifically design curriculum that meets their needs in the classroom.
Further, Sabin says, this program gives students who really need it a chance to get one on one attention from teachers. And when teachers are busy, students can keep busy and learn at their own pace, with the help of Chromebooks.
"They need that one on one, especially in ELL classes," says Gordon Behm, a physical science teacher at Central High School. Behm teaches classes that include a number of ELL students. "(The Chromebooks) are like having extra teachers in the classroom."
In addition to Chromebooks, Comcast is also offering low-cost broadband service ($9.95 per month), the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for less than $150 as well as access to free digital literacy training through its Internet Essentials program. The program is available to students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program, which offers free and reduced lunches to low income students.
Sabin went on to say Manchester is a particularly appropriate place to launch the Ambassadors program considering 50 percent of its students receive free or reduced lunch, 25 percent live in poverty and speak 70 plus languages, she says.
The program curriculum is integrated across disciplines and is comprehensive to include, but not limited to, technology, engineering, writing and the arts, Provost says. Students will also have a chance to visit STEM industries in the Manchester area in order to see the practical application and job possibilities of what a STEM education can bring.
And helping students to be better versed in and acquainted with STEM programs is of interest to tech companies, Sabin says. More and more heads of high tech companies and their consumers want tech companies to look like the rest of America, Sabin says. Not only in the interest of social justice, she says, but because, "more diverse teams are more creative and more productive."
Provost says the program will also involve students' families. Parents and caregivers will have access to workshops on financial aid literacy and how to support children when they start looking for colleges.
If nothing else, just the very act of being involved with UNH Manchester, learning from professionals and visiting local companies, gives these students some of the first glimpses of what is possible.
"This program is important to me," says Perez. "This program is going to help provide me with a good future. It will help me in the long run. I want to go to college. I want to get a good job. I don't want to be another person without an education. I want to do something with my life."
Additional sponsors for the event included acer and GovConnection. For more information about programs and curriculum, contact Melissa Gould at 603-641-4320. Image Downloads /sites/default/files/img/photos/releases/STEMAmbassadors1.jpg Caption: Rebecca Fracassa, Director of Community Investment and a Comcast Internet Essentials Representative, presents students in the STEM Ambassadors program with a donation of Chromebooks from Comcast Internet Essentials. /sites/default/files/img/photos/releases/STEMAmbassadors2.jpg Caption: Dr. Lauren Provost, UNH Research Assistant Professor, and US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen with students in the STEM Ambassadors program at UNH Manchester.
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