Building a STEM Career Pathway Through Mentorship
A 2009 advertisement for the tech company Intel depicts an actor portraying Ajay Bhatt, the computer architect whose many achievements include co-inventing the USB, striding into an office cafeteria to the accompaniment of a boisterous guitar riff. The people in the cafeteria look up in shock, gasp, and point as if a celebrity has just entered. The character of Bhatt winks, throws finger guns, and signs autographs until the ad cuts to a blue title card bearing the script "Our rock stars aren't like your rock stars."
The ad is obviously exaggerated for humorous effect; the real Ajay Bhatt quipped to The Oregonian that no one had ever asked for his autograph in the cafeteria. But to educator Faridodin "Fredi" Lajvardi, the ad's significance is that it's relatively unusual in media for portraying a person in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field as someone to aspire to be—colloquially, as someone cool. "Funny as the ad was," said Lajvardi, "they were making a point that you get what you celebrate."
According to Lajvardi, who will deliver the closing keynote address at AIHce EXP 2023, aspirational appeal is an overlooked requirement for recruiting young people to STEM careers. Throughout his 30-year teaching career, Lajvardi has learned that children and teenagers form their beliefs about what they can achieve by observing adults around them, in their daily lives as well as in media. "If they don't know you," Lajvardi said, "they're not going to be you. And so you have to find ways to do that, and the number one way is mentoring."
Engaging Students in STEM
In 1983, Lajvardi began teaching high school science in Phoenix, Arizona, thinking he was going to change the world. "I knew that I thought science was fun, and I thought I could make it fun," he said, "so I had all the confidence in the world that I wouldn't have any problems teaching." But, in a situation many people encounter at points early in their careers, Lajvardi's confidence collided with obstinate reality. Students' interest and focus faltered. Following the curriculum and preparing for teacher evaluations left Lajvardi feeling like "one hand was tied behind my back." If he was going to reclaim his joy in teaching and spark his students' enthusiasm, he was going to have to try something different.
His first move was to create an after-school science club, which allowed him to engage students in ways he wasn't able to in the classroom. "Quickly," he said, "I realized the kids who came after school really loved spending that time exploring, and once I showed them how to negotiate a problem to get around obstacles, little by little, it grew." Club activities included taking field trips and completing science fair projects. But the club wasn't resonating as widely as Lajvardi would have liked. "It was reaching a certain number of students, but they were the ones I would have guessed if I had to pick [who] would be interested in a science fair," he said. "And I wasn't satisfied with that. I wanted to be able to reach a broader cross-section."
The next step was initiated by the students themselves. The club had taken a field trip to watch the Solar and Electric 500, a race featuring electric and solar-powered cars. After the race, the cars' motors and batteries were on display, sparking the students' imaginations. When they asked Lajvardi if they could build a car to compete in the next year's race, he told them they could if they obtained permission and a copy of the rules. Lajvardi's intent was to encourage his students' curiosity, but he wasn't prepared for the level of their enthusiasm. "So, little did I know, a kid disappeared for about 10 minutes," Lajvardi related. "He comes back, he's got a copy of the rule book and permission from the race director, who'd waive the entry fee if we'd show up with the car."
Lajvardi was surprised but stayed true to his word. In fact, the students would build 13 functioning, full-sized electric cars over the next 10 years—although drivers had to be hired because students weren't allowed to drive in the race. These were innovative, experimental projects at the time, long before electric cars became widely available in the late 2000s and early 2010s. (In 1991, the Phoenix New Times provided more information about the Solar and Electric 500, while also conveying the skepticism toward electric cars that was widespread at the time.)
The electric racecars were only the first series of ambitious projects undertaken by students of the club. Lajvardi provided guidance and supervision to ensure the students' safety, but the students worked together to complete projects chosen according to their interests. Once, the club constructed a trebuchet to compete in a pumpkin-throwing competition hosted by one of the area's farms. The device that was ultimately constructed following a series of small but disappointing prototypes was 15 feet tall and had a 400-pound counterweight.
However, the science club would flourish most when the students entered a series of competitions considerably less hazardous but every bit as compelling as those that had involved racecars or trebuchets. The FIRST Robotics Competition challenges teams of students to build and program a robot capable of performing a given set of tasks within six weeks, under a limited budget and an extensive set of rules. In addition to displaying STEM skills, each team must also develop a distinct "brand." According to Lajvardi, competing in the FIRST challenges finally engaged students with a varied range of backgrounds, skills, and interests, which he'd hoped to achieve with the club's founding. Roles within the club now included officer and member positions involving marketing, logistics, public relations, graphics design, programming, and mechanical engineering. Plus, 50 percent of the team were girls.
"And so, we were able, at that time, to reach what I thought was a broad diversity of students," Lajvardi said. "I felt this was what teaching was about, which is funny because most of it occurred outside the classroom."
Participating in robotics competitions also led to stunning results in students' academic careers after high school. Lajvardi related that before starting the robotics program, perhaps one or two students from the school would go into Arizona State University's engineering program, and about half of these students would drop out. "When the program reached its maturity," he said, "we were graduating seven to 10 kids to go to engineering per year, and none of them were dropping out."
Lessons for STEM Education
While the success of the club has attracted positive attention from ASU, Lajvardi said that he is often questioned about the science club's disregard for following the official high school science curriculum. In most cases, he said, the science club's agenda lined up with the curriculum, but on the rare occasions that it didn't, he felt students were better served by their ability to problem-solve than by memorizing content. Perhaps, for example, a student happened not to complete any science club projects related to pneumatics. "If they know how to identify a problem, analyze it, figure out how to apply possible solutions, and test it out," Lajvardi said, "how hard is it going to be for them to learn pneumatics in the future?"
"It's the process of analyzing and testing possible solutions that's enabling our students not to drop out of engineering," he continued, "because they know how to tackle a problem."
Lajvardi criticized a similar kind of inflexibility that privileged students' grades or test scores over thoughtful consideration of their circumstances and experiences. For example, a student might be turned down by MIT due to their English SAT score, but the test score would not convey that they were taking the test in their second language. Or a student might achieve B grades in most of their classes while they were balancing schoolwork with participating in the science club, playing on the football team, working at a part-time job, or babysitting younger siblings. This kind of rigidity leads to academic institutions primarily accepting students from a limited set of backgrounds, which Lajvardi believes limits their ability to find innovative solutions.
"You never know where that next great idea is going to come from," he said. "And if you have everyone that has the same background—the more homogeneous your group—the less chance you have of coming up with a broader selection of possible solutions." He witnessed this firsthand in contributions made by autistic students in the after-school science club that caused the neurotypical students (that is, those without autism and certain other cognitive conditions) to consider problems in new ways. "It helped trigger a chain reaction of possible other solutions," Lajvardi said. "So, while we didn't follow the solution suggested by the kid who blurted out the idea, their participation helped make the solution viable."
The Need for Mentors
Ultimately, however, Lajvardi hopes OEHS professionals will learn from his story to build a more effective OEHS career pipeline through mentorship and community engagement. His success as a teacher came through finding ways to engage his students' interest in science. Having retired from teaching in 2018, Lajvardi has remained involved with community outreach, first as vice president of STEM initiatives and then as CEO, at Si Se Puede Foundation, an Arizona-based nonprofit organization that provides STEM opportunities for underserved youth. While joking that it'd be nice if there was a movie that recruited young people into STEM as effectively as the original Top Gun recruited Air Force pilots in the '80s, Lajvardi stressed that mentorship is the best practical way to convince high school students to consider STEM careers, including careers in OEHS.
High school robotics teams need safety; the FIRST competitions even award points for it—and safety is a field that OEHS professionals are experts in. Therefore, Lajvardi suggested that OEHS professionals might find opportunities to mentor high school robotics teams.
Lajvardi asserted that the most effective way to attract young people into a given career is by showing them, through personal example, what a person within that career does and what they're like. "The mentors who work on our robotics teams talk to the kids, so they can see what a programmer does," he said, adding that students are also interested in what kind of lives their mentors lead and the requirements for their degrees. He explained that all these things "help people convince themselves, 'Hey, I can do that because I know this person and they're doing it, so if they can do it, I can do this.'"
But robotics team mentorship is only one way to reach out. The child of one OEHS professional to whom Lajvardi had spoken went into the field following their parent's example. He also suggested high school career fairs, where students, parents, and OEHS professionals can discuss career opportunities together, as another potential form of outreach. According to Lajvardi, "anything that you can think of that can engage the community is the best way."
Fredi Lajvardi will give the closing keynote at AIHce EXP 2023 on Wednesday, May 24, 2023, from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m., Mountain time. AIHce EXP 2023 will be held May 22–24 both virtually and onsite at Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. To learn more about the keynote sessions, view the conference program, or register, visit the conference website.
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