This story is part of a series produced by Technically Philly. It is published in support of Teach for America’s 2012 education workshop series Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education. The series will run daily Dec. 5-9.
After graduating from Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical Education High School while living in a working-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia during the 1980s, Myreon-Michael Smallwood had a decision to make.
He didn’t have an interest in attending a four-year college, but his father, who worked as an inspector for the Philadelphia Water Department, wanted better for his son. They agreed to meet in the middle.
Having always liked to take things apart, Smallwood enrolled in a two-year electronic technology associates program at the Pennsylvania Institute of Technology outside the city in Media.
It was there that he learned computer-aided drafting, using an emerging software package called AutoCAD, which would shape the course of his career.
After graduating in 1989, he got a job as a technician at a small polymer processing plant. Five years in, outsourcing of industrial jobs began to impact the plant. But the computer skills that Smallwood learned at P.I.T. and in high school made him an indispensable asset to the company.
Today, Smallwood’s success, of graduating from Philadelphia’s public school system as an African-American and earning a degree at a two-year technical school in a field related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, would be considered a statistical anomaly.
– Myreon-Michael Smallwood
As we reported Monday, between 2005 and 2010, less than one percent of African-American students — who make up more than half of the District’s enrollment of 150,000 — graduated high school and went on to earn college degrees in a STEM-related major.
Having later earned a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University, Smallwood now works at Boeing‘s southwest Philadelphia location as an engineer, helping to keep track of the physics that enable the company’s helicopters to fly.
It was out of concern for the District’s STEM opportunities that he stepped outside of his daily routine at the company to address the situation that faced his own children.
Though his son Zachary and daughter Anisa attended a School District elementary school that offered STEM activities, the programs were all but inactive, he says. He began inquiring at the school and at a local engineers trade group about how to change that.
Greater Philadelphia: Innovation in Education
Application deadline: December 16
Teach for America, in partnership with Technically Philly, will be hosting an invite-only series of education innovation workshops in 2012 intended to inspire the creation of actionable nonprofit and business ventures to impact education. TFA is looking for a cross-industry pool of applicants but is encouraging Philadelphia’s entrepreneurial technology community to get involved. Mention that you saw the workshops on Technically Philly in your application.
“The more I asked, the more they pushed me to do something,” he says.
Smallwood continues to manage a Philadelphia K-12 outreach program for the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers, helping put industry workers in front of students during school career days and at robotics competitions.
“The responsibility is on me. I’m taking whatever experience I have and giving it to others, just as a citizen,” Smallwood says.
In Philadelphia, where STEM leaders see an opportunity to replace lost manufacturing industry jobs with high-tech jobs, Smallwood’s story is emblematic of a number of efforts coalescing close to the School District of Philadelphia, which are aimed at heightening awareness of the importance of STEM education and working to solve disparate pieces of the problem.
Several nonprofits have it in their mission to advance the dialogue around STEM education.
The Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center advocates from the perspective of job creation and retention for the manufacturing industry. The Philadelphia Education Fund’s Math + Science Coalition pushes for teacher preparation and training. The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education works to create programming for students. At the America21 Project, the focus is on STEM education and workforce development in urban communities.
Universities around the region provide mentorship, resources and facilities for K-12 students, like Penn Engineering, the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab the Drexel’s MET-Lab, among others.
At the heart of each effort is a sense of civic duty to ensure that the United States, and Philadelphia, can create a competitive, 21st century workforce.
When J.J. Biel-Goebel, a Boeing helicopter engineer, first reached out to Technically Philly in May, he was excited to share that the high school robotics team that he had helped found a year ago at South Philadelphia High had won a regional rookie award.
Boeing has a dedicated philanthropy arm that supports more than two dozen robotics programs in the Philadelphia region, with financial contribution and mentorship opportunities. But its the volunteering efforts of individuals like Biel-Goebel that is pushing actionable change at the front lines of District STEM policy.
South Philly High — which in 2009 was a microcosm emblematic of the school district’s mounting problems under superintendent Ackerman — seemed like it was turning around under the leadership of new principal Otis Hackney, with newly minted programs like its robotics team.
But Biel-Goebel was concerned about the future of that newly founded team.
With the district facing state funding cuts this summer that could potentially trickle down to the extracurricular level, and rumors swirling about a district robotics coordinator that was laid-off in June, Biel-Goebel wanted to make sure that the program would continue.
Having gained contacts across the wider robotics ecosystem in the District, he recognized that problems facing South Philly High also faced other schools.
He began reaching out to colleagues and organized an informal group made up of fellow mentors and robotics team leaders, School District and university officials, and nonprofit and industry leaders to discuss the issue.
The intention of the group is to “make sure that kids in Philadelphia have access to applied learning activities, ranging from robotics to computer software and anything based in STEM,” Biel-Goebel says.
To do that, he hopes that the organization can operate in parallel with the District, auditing its STEM programs, deficiencies and resources, in an attempt to hold it accountable. The group is also working to convene industry sponsors to provide sustainable funding, looking to Biel-Goebel’s Boeing bosses and other large businesses for donations.
The group is actively seeking a permanent robotics facility that can be used to circumvent the district’s extracurricular restrictions. For now, the group has set up shop at NextFab Studio at University City Science Center.
Biel-Goebel’s end game is an ambitious project. It will likely take more than advocacy to convene an actionable organization that is able to audit, fund and connect Philadelphia STEM resources in tandem with the School District.
But interest in centralization is increasing. Many leaders interviewed for this series saw value in a comprehensive School District STEM strategy that includes, among other priorities outlined in this series, regional asset mapping and district data collection to help make more clear the message. Additional and more in-depth data that can show the impact of existing STEM programs in the district is of primary concern.
Biel-Goebel says that it could show why investments in STEM education should be made.
“Everyone is under the impression that it’s going to show extremely positive results,” he says.
For now, with that research in limbo, STEM advocates continue to work alongside the District in an effort to impact science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, because they believe it can make Philadelphia a competitive environment for 21st century jobs.
READ THE ENTIRE ‘STATE OF STEM’ SERIES
Part 1 of this series: STEM graduation rates show uphill battle with math and science in School District
Part 2 of this series: Lack of citywide STEM education vision leaves Philly’s skilled workforce in jeopardy
Part 3 of this series: State and District math and science policies leave gaps in competitive STEM curriculum
Part 4 of this series: Citizens work alongside the school system to strengthen District STEM