Engaging Students—and Teachers—with Classroom Visits

October 26, 2015

This is the third in a series of blogs about work-based learning in STEM. Classroom visits are one of six types of employer-led learning activities highlighted in our employer’s guide to work-based learning.

Classroom visits are a tried-and-true way for STEM professionals to talk with young people about their work and careers. Now, with STEM talent in high demand, companies are becoming more deliberate in their efforts to make the most of classroom visits for students—and teachers.

Two Change the Equation member companies—Dow and Xerox—shared their evolving approaches to classroom visits with us. Here’s what we learned:

Connect classroom visits to core business priorities.
Building on decades of classroom visits, Dow last year created the Dow STEM Ambassadors program, which in less than a year is a 1,300-strong cadre of volunteers around the globe. The program creates a structure around employee volunteerism to better meet student, teacher, employee and corporate needs. “Ultimately, it’s about building the workforce of tomorrow,” says Dow’s Jaime Curtis-Fisk, STEM Education Program Leader and Formulation Scientist. “We want students in our communities to be college and career ready—prepared for whatever the next step beyond high school is for them.”

Building that workforce of tomorrow is a “K–career” endeavor, says Dow’s Meredith Morris, STEM Leader, Global Citizenship—and it also yields business benefits today. Engaging Dow employees in inspiring and preparing tomorrow’s employees is a powerful recruitment and retention strategy. “Studies show that employees, particularly employees just coming out of school, want to work at a company that they think is making positive social impacts on the world and on their communities,” Morris says. “We also see an opportunity to tell the Dow story to a captive audience of students, teachers and parents.” The Dow STEM Ambassadors program also will be a linchpin in the company’s corporate commitment to positively impact the lives of a billion people across the world over the next decade via employee engagement.

At Xerox, employees have been providing hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for almost 50 years, since “before STEM was STEM,” says Elissa Nesbitt, Manager of Community Relations and Communications, Xerox Foundation. The thrust then—and now—is building a diverse workforce for engineering. Today, the Xerox Science Consultant program puts greater emphasis on bridging gaps in STEM learning opportunities between affluent and urban schools.

The program syncs with a core Xerox mission of corporate citizenship and community engagement—and it enhances the company’s reputation in its communities. The program also draws new hires, particularly Millennials, in droves. “When you are trusted to take an hour or two during the day to give back to the community, you feel good about the company you work for,” Nesbitt says. “It makes you feel energized, and you may give a little bit more to that project you were working on.” At the same time, Xerox employees at all stages of their careers, even retired employees, visit classrooms.

Focus on student engagement, learning, and career awareness and preparation.
Classroom visits give Xerox an opportunity to put a different spin on the school curriculum. “Our mission isn’t to teach earth science or static electricity to improve test scores,” Nesbitt says. “We want students to understand the concept, how it applies to real life and how it may apply to their career one day. We couple that with a role model—some of these students may not have a scientist or an engineer in their family or in their neighborhood. We want kids to get excited about potential career paths and learning over all. That for us is what it’s all about.”

Likewise, the Dow program focuses first on sparking students’ interest in STEM learning. “If students have decided that math is too hard for them or science isn’t interesting, our first priority is to win them back over” by engaging them in hands-on science activities or experiments, says Dow’s Curtis-Fisk. Once their eyes light up, Dow STEM Ambassadors help to channel that excitement into learning STEM content and hard skills students need to be successful in college and careers.

“Particularly in the United States, we need talented individuals across the workforce pipeline—chemists, engineers, electricians, pipefitters, welders,” Dow’s Morris says. “We want to make sure we’re providing resources to students and to parents about what the next steps are education-wise and how that translates into a career.”

Align activities with the school curriculum and teacher needs.
Over the years, Xerox engineers and scientists have developed about 60 hands-on lesson plans and materials kits for classroom visits—all mapped to the local school curriculum. Every year, the company collaborates with local school district partners to review and update the lessons, which are geared to students in grades 3–6.

“We’ve learned to be flexible and read the needs of the school,” Nesbitt says. “We have a very well prepared group of volunteers. But it really comes down to, what do the school district and school and teacher need?” Xerox Science Consultants work with teachers to learn the progression of lessons throughout the school year and map out the classroom visits with hands-on activities to support the curriculum. Xerox consultants also help teachers prepare students beforehand with relevant vocabulary, for example, so they’re ready to engage in the activities. Those interactions can help teachers better understand science as well.

Similarly, classroom visits aren’t merely a “one and done” activity for Dow. The company is partnering with the Smithsonian Science Education Center to develop instructional modules on topics such as energy and chemical reactions. Teachers also can call on Dow STEM Ambassadors for follow-up assistance. Another Dow program, Teacher Partners, pairs teachers with a Dow “buddy” who provides expertise on science topics to teachers for their classroom instruction.

Amplify the impact by helping employees make the most of their volunteer time.
In the past year, Dow has added volunteer coordinators in Michigan, Louisiana and Texas, three states in which the company has a major presence. These coordinators handle the logistics of classroom visits and other volunteer activities, forge connections with schools and out-of-school organizations, and match employees with “best fit” volunteer opportunities. This infrastructure means “employees’ time and passion is spent working with students and teachers,” Curtis-Fisk says.

Track and measure results. Dow now tracks and monitors volunteer efforts more closely, just as it does for other business activities. This enables Dow to identify where employees and schools might need more support.

These types of programs from companies like Dow and Xerox 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.

Tags: Employee Engagement, science, engineering