How do you know when you have a successful STEM mentoring program? The City of Philadelphia knew it had created something special when a group of 10 middle school students was willing to walk 30 blocks in the cold to hear professionals from the Office of Innovation & Technology talk about their careers and explain how topics like GIS, open data and digital literacy could contribute to plans for a hypothetical “cool school of the future.” Over the course of 8 weeks, this dedicated cohort of 6th-8th graders had the opportunity to learn from and work with technology and innovation experts to create plans for talking desks, debit cards that are activated by getting good grades, and video conferencing platforms that would allow students to participate in class even if they couldn’t physically be in the classroom. And yes, they did pitch their ideas to Philadelphia’s mayor.
What was initially thought of as a one-time novelty program quickly proved itself to be a meaningful and educational experience for not only the middle school students, but the OIT staff and leadership, as well. In the fall of 2015, the City launched a second iteration of the program and gave significant ownership over the curriculum and structure to the returning students, who were able to become “peer leaders” for this new cohort. The students renamed the program, helped conceive of the overarching theme, and serve as co-teachers with the OIT facilitators.