This is the second in a series of blogs on work-based learning in STEM. Company tours are one of six types of employer-led learning activities highlighted in our employer’s guide to work-based learning.
You’d think that kids growing up in and around the Silicon Valley would have a natural window on the world of high-tech careers. For plenty of K–12 students, however, this hub of innovation might as well be on another planet. Disparity in learning opportunities for disadvantaged students, and for girls and young people of color who are underrepresented in STEM fields, is just as real here as anywhere.
Two of our member companies, Symantec and SSL (Space Systems Loral), are among those trying to change that. Both companies embrace work-based learning by welcoming students to their facilities for eye-opening company tours that showcase advanced technology and the skilled STEM professionals who create and produce it. Both companies are leveraging strategic partnerships with STEM-focused organizations to maximize their impact on students.
Symantec, the world’s largest cybersecurity company, has been hosting formal tours for students in third grade through high school since 2008, and on an ad hoc basis before that. Students get to visit state-of-the-art computer labs and data centers, and talk with employees at the company’s Mountain View headquarters, as well as other company sites. One of the most popular activities is lunchtime in the cafeteria, where groups of four or five students like to pepper the Symantec employee at their table with questions about their work, educational preparation and career passions—a small-group interaction that both students and employees enjoy.
“We want kids to be exposed to a big array of jobs in the tech industry,” says Lora Phillips, director, corporate responsibility. “There’s the really cool technology, and tech jobs where really smart, cutting-edge researchers are working on trends in security, cybersecurity and data protection. But there are so many other things that people can do at this company. We want to open their eyes to a broader perspective. If they’re great writers, we’ll take them to meet the PR people and learn about telling the tech story. If they’re great with people, they talk with the HR team about how to build a very competitive base of employees.”
For these tours and other K–12 STEM education programs, Symantec partners with organizations like Techbridge, an accomplished CTEq STEMworks program that inspires girls to discover a passion for technology, science and engineering. The company works closely with its partners to understand their goals for particular groups of students—and tailors the tours and the mix of learning activities to meet them. Symantec also tries to match employee volunteers with interests and skills that dovetail with those of students. “Finding that intersection between what the nonprofits are looking for and what our employees are looking for—that’s the sweet spot,” Phillips says.
Company tours give employees a fun and convenient way to volunteer, which is important to them, Phillips says. The tours also reflect a Symantec corporate responsibility goal of exciting, engaging and educating 1 million students in STEM education through global nonprofit partnerships, with an emphasis on computer science and cybersecurity, by 2020.
At SSL, a leading commercial satellite designer and manufacturer, the enormous manufacturing area at the Palo Alto headquarters is the key attraction during company tours for K–12 students. The students get to see first-hand both huge, shiny, nearly completed satellites and satellites at different build and assembly stages. Employees share the engineering that goes into the components and the complex manufacturing process.
“The most important part of this for me is that students get to see that these engineers are just regular women and men, like people the students know,” says Alessandra Borgia, a propulsion engineer who leads the SSL STEM Outreach Team. “That resonates and they say, ‘Wow! I can do this.’”
On the tours, employees engage students in a dialogue about how satellites relate to students’ daily life. “Satellites provide essential services that fuel growth and help everyone connect around the world,” Borgia says. Employees develop age-appropriate activities for tours as well, such as having younger students build their own satellites out of recycled material or launch paper rockets propelled by Alka-Seltzer® and water in a film canister.
Without a dedicated educational outreach staff, SSL has hosted company tours for schools and organizations that ask for them—including TechBridge. More recently, Borgia has reached out to explore collaborations with other organizations, including Society of Women Engineers, LISTAS (Latinas in STEM to Achieve Success) in the California Bay Area and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
For her, this effort is personal as well as professional. She earned her PhD in particle physics from a university department of 50 students, only a few of whom were women and minorities. “That’s really depressing and discouraging,” she says. “I don’t want that for our future. In general, we don’t see enough diversity.” So she is helping SSL target girls, underserved students and schools, and underrepresented young people in STEM fields. “That’s really the point of STEM outreach—to help people who don’t have an interface or experience with STEM,” she says.
These types of programs from companies like Symantec and SSL are giving kids the kind of meaningful, real-world exposure to STEM jobs that can last a lifetime. To learn more about work-based learning, and what your company can do, check out our employer’s guide.