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STEM program fosters purpose, positive thinking

Middle school students get used to college goals
STEM students Terrain Edwards-Grant, Darren Chanel-Volmar and Jamie Edwards support one another's success.
Caption:
STEM students Terrain Edwards-Grant, Darren Chanel-Volmar and Jamie Edwards support one another's success.
Credits:
Photo / Erin Michael Salius
STEM program mentor Ernest Alba, left, studies with mentee Kevin Liang.
Caption:
STEM program mentor Ernest Alba, left, studies with mentee Kevin Liang.
Credits:
Photo / Erin Michael Salius
Colin Smith, left, digs into homework with his STEM mentor, Clinton Scroggins.
Caption:
Colin Smith, left, digs into homework with his STEM mentor, Clinton Scroggins.
Credits:
Photo / Erin Michael Salius

If the 40 middle school children who arrive at MIT on the first Saturday of each month seem well acclimated to undergraduate life at MIT, it is for good reason. At least once a month since September, these local public school students have traveled to campus to participate in a unique mentoring opportunity sponsored by the STEM Program (mit.edu/stem). STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, provides year-round educational enrichment for underserved youth from Boston and Cambridge.

After attending a five-week intensive academic experience on campus in the summer, the sixth through ninth grade STEM participants meet regularly with MIT students to build study skills, practice time-management techniques and talk about different challenges they face every day in school. In addition to the scholastic training and emotional support they receive from their mentors, STEM middle schoolers also get an insider's glimpse at what it's really like to attend a university like MIT. Over the past six months, they have toured campus, visited the MIT Museum, conducted experiments in labs and listened to presentations about cutting-edge research. And on March 3, they experienced yet another important "rite of passage" for any college student: movie day in the dorms.

Taking the afternoon off for a much-needed study break from problem sets and lab reports, STEM mentors and mentees gathered together over brunch in one of MIT's dorms to watch an inspirational film. The movie about a young girl from the inner city who aspires to realize a seemingly impossible dream provided a forum for discussing each student's own aspirations in life--as well as potential stumbling blocks they might have to contend with along the way.

One seventh grader admitted to his mentor, "My greatest fear is to look at myself…a few years or decades from now and see my life totally messed up. I will overcome that fear by trying my best in school, getting a good education and job so I can live happy with my family."

It is exactly this sense of purpose and positive thinking that the STEM Program hopes to inspire in every middle school student it serves. The kids are getting the message. As an eighth grader put it, he has learned that "we should not be afraid of things we can't do, and instead do all that we can."

The STEM Program is directed by Nicole Stark of the Office of Engineering Outreach Programs in the School of Engineering, which also oversees academic-year and summer opportunities for high school students. MIT offers a number of community outreach programs that target students in grades K-12, including underserved youth. For more information, visit web.mit.edu/outreach/.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 14, 2007 (download PDF).

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