My volunteer idea

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning lately. I’d say the amount I’m still learning at work has a good amount to do with it. But I’ve been brainstorming a charity I would like to start.

I would like to start a charity that goes around to schools and promotes science and engineering to lower and middle income schools.

Not because I’ve been reading about how the country will be hurt by less engineers coming out of our schools. To be completely honest, that would work in my favor because I would be more rare and therefore more valuable. But really I want others to experience engineering. I want others to be curious about the world. I want to inspire some kid that’s going to create the space shuttle that makes it to Mars.

At first I was thinking that my idea was original. It wasn’t. A lot of companies have some great programs in place for this sort of thing. But what drives me here is that most programs I have found are more localized. Some programs are national, but they aren’t educational programs so much as they are activities (as they should be, hands on is crucial). I was also thinking possibly this excitement could be generated in kids from books. But there are already these out there too, some more subtle than others. I even read some of these when I was a kid and perhaps this is why I became an engineer in the first place.

What I envision is a national network of engineers who are “dealt” out to schools to present to children in their classrooms. These should be hands on or at least exciting presentations, similar to a “career day” where kids’ parents come in and tell what they do. It needs to be more exciting though. Most importantly, the kids MUST realize why they need to learn certain things in school and how they apply in real life. I think back to all the things I learned and subsequently forgot because I thought it wasn’t going to be necessary in “real life”. I’m sure this has happened to everyone. But you need to plant that seed so kids get excited about learning the math and the science that we always hear about faltering, so they know what they have to do to reach an eventual goal of inventing something or helping people with science.

When I was thinking that a book might be the correct route, I began to outline the ideas I had for topics. I think they would be relevant as a framework for a volunteer speaking in front of a classroom. Here are some of those initial ideas:

  1. Why is great about engineering? What do engineers do?
    1. Example products are a great way to excite kids because it’s something tangible. If you show them the latest iPhone and tell them about all the different components inside and how they need to be made, kids will listen. If you tell them about how a bridge is made and how much weight they can support (preferably in units of #’s of elephants), they will listen. When you tell them that you can create an artificial limb for someone to walk again, they will listen. Stress all the different types of engineering and science and you will pique a lot of individual interests.
    2. Stress the fact that they can change the world.
    3. Sure, most engineers will tell you that there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t great about being an engineer or a scientist, but that’s not how you inspire people. You don’t tell a bunch of aspiring doctors how they’ll have to deal HMOs, do you? You don’t talk to aspiring lawyers about the boredom and monotony of reading legal cases for civil suits, do you? In this case, you tell them about designing and being creative and making things that will help the world. All the things that all of us aspire to do every day, even if we don’t get to. Extra points to the presenter who gives ideas to kids on how to inspire their creativity.
  2. What do you need to know to be an engineer?
    1. Math
      • This is probably one of the hardest subjects in school based solely on the fact that it is abstract. I remember the day that my calculus teacher started talking about a math theorem in terms of cars. Or the day I found out what a fourier transform really represented instead of the math you had to do in order to get a solution. Abstraction is something that is not learned until later in life and kids need reinforcement on why math is important. Hook them young and you’ll have a math fan for life (the other option is to force them to learn math at first and hope they appreciate it later…doesn’t work)
    2. Science
      • This is the obvious one and probably allows for the most demonstrations that will excite kids. It would also be a good opportunity to tie in the different types of engineering.
    3. Business
      • This is definitely something that engineers need but would really be a better way to work in other subjects that might not be thought of as necessary for aspiring scientists and engineers. Even English and history could be worked in as being necessary for writing and context. The idea would be to stress that all subjects are important in some way or another.
  3. Where can you learn more?
    1. Your parents/Your teachers/Your heroes
      • Stress good role models to kids. This is done in many avenues but cannot be done enough. Stop kids idolizing Pacman Jones, introduce them to Dean Kamen or Stephen Hawking. Make sure they know that they can learn a lot from their teachers and to utilize them any way possible.
    2. Wikipedia/Books/The internet
      • Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It taught him something dangerous and then he was careless with it. Teaching kids to be curious is very important and stressing that they will need to teach themselves is even more important. Teaching oneself and doing useful research should be a class unto itself in college, let alone elementary/middle/high school.
    3. Each other
      • The most important thing that any aspiring scientist/engineer can do is to try something out themselves. Build a radio with a friend. Build a race car with a friend. Build a treehouse with a friend. Learn how to work well with others and don’t ever be afraid of failing. You will learn the most in your life from the things you don’t do right the first time.

Finally, in order to get this type of volunteer opportunity off the ground I think there would be some initial hurdles to get over:

  1. Finding volunteers
    • One of the problems with having engineers speak in front of kids is that…they’re engineers. Not so much the awkwardness factor (although I’m sure that could be a problem), but really the “having-a-day-job” factor. You’d have to ask engineers to take time out of their day to go speak at a school That could prove difficult.
    • Also, there would have to be a screening process, as bad as it sounds. A presentation that is boring in front of kids could have the opposite effect. Perhaps just a trial run for the volunteers to make sure they’re keeping kids engaged.
  2. Finding acceptance in schools
    • The target schools here would be middle to lower income. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea how receptive they would be to this idea, but there would definitely need to be planning.
    • Another hurdle would be maintaining contact. Say a volunteer goes to speak to kids once a year, then all the schools in an area would be covered pretty quickly. There would need to be an on-going effort with schools to maintain a program.
  3. Finding funding
    • Everything costs money. And similar to the point made above, engineers have day jobs, so someone would have to coordinate everything. That means assistants/interns/whoever and office supplies cost money. There could be a nominal fee to bring these people into schools, but then that contradicts with the above idea of middle-low income schools that might not have the funding. Perhaps there could be a corporate pairing (“JFK middle school loves Analog Devices!” t-shirts?) or perhaps with other professional organizations.
  4. Finding time
    • This is more of a personal thing. Sure I’d love to start this charity/volunteer thing, but it’s going to take some time to hash out and start up. If you’d like to help, let me know.

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