STEP Program Teaches Kids How to Learn Beyond High School

Each day, millions of high school students across America look up at the equation-covered chalkboards in their math and science classes and think, "When the heck am I ever going to use this stuff?" For many, the answer is never. But thanks to a group of graduate students from Georgia Tech, students in six metro Atlanta highs schools are learning how to use those classroom lessons to develop a career.

"Many of these kids have no idea of what they want to do when they get out of high school," said Sundiata Jangha, a 27-year-old African-American doctoral student in mechanical engineering at Tech. Jangha is a fellow in Georgia Tech's Student and Teacher Enhancement Partnership (STEP), a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded program now in its second year at the midtown Atlanta university.

As a STEP fellow, he spends at least 10 hours a week teaching general chemistry along with accelerated physics and chemistry at the predominately African-American Cedar Grove High School in south DeKalb County. He, along with 11 other fellows, has spent the past year working with teachers in one of six metro Atlanta high schools, most of them in the city's mainly African-American southern portion.

As graduate students not long out of high school, said Jangha. "We can connect with the students in ways that the school's teachers can't." Plus they can show the students how we use concepts discussed in class in our research projects. Seeing firsthand, how these seemingly dense subjects are used in research and the business world, helps students make connections between what they're studying and the real world, he said.

"One of the real strengths of the STEP program is that it helps fill in the gaps of the school's curricula. In addition to helping the teachers with the core subjects, the fellows mentor the students. They show them why those subjects are important and how they can use what they're learning in class to pursue college, graduate school and a career," said Marion Usselman, co-principal investigator of STEP at Tech and research scientist at the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC).

Tech's STEP program is jointly administered by by the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL) and CEISMC. In 2001, Tech's first year in the program, 25 graduate students applied for slots as one of the 12 fellows. This past year, 40 applied and, for 2003-2004, 55 students applied for teaching positions.

Tech's current NSF grant ends at the end of spring semester 2004. But Donna Llewellyn, principal investigator of STEP at Tech and director of CETL, said they are pursuing a second grant to continue their funding for another five years, which would give Tech time to find ways to make the program, or some aspects of it, a permanent fixture.

Getting students on a college and career path is vital to their success, said Jangha. "I try to get my students to think about what they want to do when they graduate from high school. So many of them have such a broad range of career ideas: firemen, policemen, astronaut. That's great when you're six, but at this point you need to narrow your choices and find out what it takes to get there," he explained.

At 6'4," Jangha is an imposing presence. And though he is well liked by the students, he often asks and expects more of them than they would like to give, said Mike Pastirik, a teacher Jangha partners with at Cedar Grove. "But he asks good things and, in the long run, the students step up."

"Being an outsider, I'm allowed to be harder on the students academically than the teachers," said Jangha. "I'm an excuse buster. I tell the students, 'If you're not performing, excuses don't matter'."

Doing more than the minimum, Jangha says, is one ethic he's trying to instill in his students. "High school kids are minimalists. They do as little as possible. If the assignment is to do numbers one, three, five and seven, they do one, three, five and seven. I try to teach them the benefits of doing the even numbered problems. It never occurs to them that doing problem number two could help them understand number three," he said.

STEP fellow David (pronounced DAH-vid) Woessner is also trying to teach his students to go the extra mile. A candidate for a master's degree in mechanical engineering and another in business administration, he teaches applied math, introduction to engineering and the college transition class at Westlake High School in south Fulton County. Like Jangha, he is African-American, and he helped his students start a junior chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) at the predominately black Westlake.

"Some of my students are interested in engineering professions, but others are in NSBE because they're not sure what they want to do and getting involved is a good way to figure that out," he said.

As an engineer, Woessner said, he's especially interested in helping African-American students join the profession. "Why do we need more black engineers? We have a big problem in the black community with access to technology," he said. "Technology can be a great divider of society and engineers can give back to their community by providing access to both the technology and the company. Even among the wealthy African-Americans, I notice a technology and computer illiteracy. For instance, out of the 25 or so students in NSBE at Westlake, only five use e-mail."

Closing this technology gap, said Woessner, is crucial for the black community to continue to grow and penetrate into professional fields. So is going to college.

Last fall, he drove a group to visit Wabash College in Indiana. Even if they're not planning on going to Wabash, visiting colleges is a great way to get them to think about what it takes to get into college and get them to want to go, he said.

In addition, Woessner along with Jangha and the other STEP fellows, took their students to Georgia Tech's FOCUS weekend, a program designed to recruit African-American graduate students to Tech.

Visiting a graduate school recruiting program may seem like jumping the gun, when the students aren't even in college yet, said Jangha, but getting them to think about graduate school helps them focus on a career path. "When I was seven, I was told by my godfather that I was going to get a Ph.D. He taught me to go to grad school so I had a path in mind. So many of the kids who go off to college without a path end up coming right back to the neighborhood, working at a minimum wage job," he said.

To help students develop a career path, STEP Fellow Kendra Taylor co-founded the Young Ladies Initiative at Dunwoody High School in north DeKalb County. The group, made up of 17 students, Taylor and three other professional women, meets on Wednesday mornings and at lunch to discuss goals and strategies for success.

"Many of the students don't understand the linkage between what they study and their career," said Taylor. "In the Young Ladies Initiative we ask them to ask themselves, 'What are the characteristics I see in the young lady that I will become in the next five years?' I remind them of these traits during the weeks that we meet," she said. By the end of the semester, these young ladies will have a list of their goals and strategies to achieve them, which is the first step in the long road to success.

By the end of the semester, Taylor will have taken two groups of students through the mentoring program. Thanks to a relatively rigid public school curriculum, the teachers don't get a lot of time to teach anything except the core subjects, she said. That doesn't leave a lot of time for futures planning or developing the organizational and leadership skills the students will need when they go to college and beyond. Taylor hopes her program will help round out her students' education.

"In my mentoring, I try to incorporate the math, science and engineering and let the young ladies know this is something they can do," said Taylor, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in industrial engineering.

Not surprisingly, Taylor and Jangha said they hope to be college professors someday and that by participating in STEP they will gain a better understanding of their future students, both on a cultural level as well as learning what the high schools are teaching them. Woessner intends to go into professional sports management but plans to keep mentoring students through the NSBE junior chapter he helped found.

In fact, most former fellows have continued mentoring students in one way or another. Because as Woessner, put it, " The STEP program offers a way for me to give back to the community and to provide support, encouragement and expertise to young students. The main reason I mentor is because I hope to impact some young person's life in a profound manner just as my life was influenced by a mentor of mine."