Ask any kid what they want to do when they grow up, and the answers can be predictable – a firefighter, a dancer, or an astronaut, maybe. But as we get older, the question gets tougher to figure out. And even if a middle school or high school kid knows what career path they want to follow, they might not have the slightest idea how to make it happen or what it could actually be like to do the job day after day.
That's where career preparation programs come in. Through a combination of mentoring, job shadowing, and actually taking kids inside the classrooms and labs used to train tomorrow's scientists, doctors, and coders, professionals in these fields show promising young people exactly what it's like to work in those jobs and what it takes to get there.
Encouraging the next generation of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians
GO-GIRL (Gaining Options-Girls Investigate Real Life), a program run through the College of Education at Wayne State University, is aimed at encouraging seventh-grade girls to build science, technology, engineering and math skills, especially minority students who are traditionally underrepresented in those fields.
Girls have to apply to get into GO-GIRLS, although they don't necessarily have to be top math or science students so much as solid, hardworking kids, says Sally Kay Roberts, director of the GO-GIRLS program. Every Saturday for 10 weeks, girls work in research teams with two university student mentors to develop survey questions related to a topic they select – for the session starting this month, they'll look at issues surrounding "food deserts" in the city of Detroit. They design a survey and use statistics software to look at responses, and present their findings publicly.
There's a lot more to it than that, however – the program connects them with female researchers, allows them to tour university research laboratories, and access university library resources. The program also recruits females working in STEM disciplines to talk to the girls about what their career is really like and how they prepared for it.
GO-GIRLS not only benefits the girls who are part of it; staff work with parents to help guide their daughters into the challenging classes some may begin to shy away from starting in the junior high years. "If you're doing advanced math, you can move back down, but it's harder to move up," says Roberts. "By putting them in the more advanced track, they're getting the best teachers and will be in a social network with some of best kids. It opens more doors – if she winds up in STEM or not, mathematics is a gatekeeper."
It also helps break down some of the racial stereotypes around the abilities of African-American girls, Roberts says. Girls in the program come from throughout the metro area, giving them an opportunity to meet people they otherwise would not have. And the researchers and faculty who work with the girls are also impressed with what they are curious about and able to do, which widens their perceptions of who makes a good researcher, engineer, or scientists.
"From a social justice aspect, we really need the face of females and minorities making decisions and coming up with our future products," Roberts says.
Finding future health professionals
Research shows that minority populations have better health outcomes when their health care providers are the same race they are. But there are not enough minority physicians coming up through the pipeline, which is one factor in health disparities between minority and majority groups. Two programs, the Michigan Area Health Education Center (MI-AHEC) through Wayne State and a partnership between the University of Michigan Medical School and Cass Technical High School, are looking to reverse that trend.
"The primary mission of MI-AHEC is that it can get these kids interested in a career," says Ramona Benkert, an associate professor for the College of Nursing who directs the program. More to the point, the program helps students, some of whom are first generation college students, feel comfortable with the prospect of going to college and the work it will take to get there. This is personal for Benkert. She’s a Detroit kid herself and took a circuitous route to her academic career, first getting certified as a medical assistant, then earning a bachelors of science in nursing, and then going on to attain her PhD.
One of MI-AHEC’s programs helps those students pay for college. The Detroit Public Schools Foundation funds the Detroit Premed Scholars, which selects 16 youths from Detroit Public Schools to participate in a 6-week summer program. They receive a stipend to volunteer in several clinics and hospital sites in the Detroit area. They also job shadow a doctor for a week and learn about what is required to get into medical school. Of students who completed the program, 100 percent went to college and the vast majority have pursued health careers, says Benkert.
In partnership with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry, MI-AHEC also offers a summer dental career program. The "Dental Imprint" program goes into Detroit Public Schools to teach students about dental careers. Many kids think medical careers are limited to being a doctor or nurse, but in fact a strong background in science and math can prepare them for careers like dentistry, physical therapy and other allied health professions. The second part of the program brings students to the UDM dental campus to shadow dentists and hygienists, and brush up on skills needed for the MCAT and DAT tests that are required for entry to medical and dental school.
The third program is the C2Pipeline. It takes students from underperforming high schools in Detroit, Ecorse and Oak Park and provides them with after school mentoring and tutoring in reading and math. In the summer, they stay on Wayne State’s campus in the dorms, interacting with faculty and participating in professional education programs.
Not only do these programs help to reduce health disparities, because many of the students come back and serve the community where they were raised, but it’s also a way to respond to the erosion of the traditional manufacturing jobs with well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced. And it's a way to redirect the narrative about the city. "I think that having been born and raised in Detroit, the press we get is so negative and so disheartening, but there are so many good things going on every day that never make the press," Benkert says. "There is huge potential."
That's exactly what inspired Jonathan Finks, an associate professor of surgery and director of the Adult Bariatric Surgery program at the University of Michigan Medical School, to launch the partnership between the med school and Cass Tech High School. He wanted to encourage smart, talented Detroit kids to pursue a medical career and to attend the University of Michigan to do so, which is why he chose Cass Tech as the school to partner with – as a application school drawing some of the brightest Detroit kids, Cass Tech has a long track record of sending students on to U-M.
"It's to the benefit of the medical school to get these kids to come to U-M," Finks says.
Twenty ninth-graders are brought to campus on a maize-and-blue bus once a month for a mix of hands-on activities including a virtual surgery, job shadowing, and mentoring by second-year medical students. Students are also assigned a group capstone project to work on that summarizes their knowledge. Faculty and staff also talk with the students and their parents about what it takes to get into the med school at U-M and what the financial aid process is like.
One surprising aspect of the program is how much the second year medical student mentors love working with the Cass Tech kids, and vice versa. "They tell me it’s the best thing they've done in med school," Finks says.
Nurturing future entrepreneurs
In this economy, the best way to ensure job security is by making your own job and starting your own business. But entrepreneurship takes skills, skills not taught in many schools. Kidpreneur, which is opening a popup shop in the D:Hive Pilot space this month, takes tweens ages 10-13 and turns them into budding startup whizzes with classes in tech topics like app development, LEGO robotics, video production and animation, taught by people working in the trenches in tech startups.
There's also an entrepreneurship class that teaches skills like landing customers, using technology and pitching the business to potential funders. "Our core principle is to make them confident and able to express their ideas," says Thanh Tran, founder of Kidpreneur. "For any entrepreneurs, they have to be excited about themselves and their ideas. They won't get anywhere with their idea if they can’t get everyone else excited about it."
The Detroit location is a spinoff of Kidpreneur's flagship in Northville, which launched this summer. The classes are not cheap, but Tran says they are planning to offer scholarships to a small number of kids. “If we can make one out of those five to 10 kids move beyond just playing games to doing more code, and make it a lifelong journey, we can create these future job creators and our programs will give them the edge," he says.
They'll also hold workshops that will be open to anyone and let parents learn about coding and development right alongside their kids, Tran says. The idea is to get kids moving along the startup path so by the time they are out of high school or college, they'll have failed at a few business ideas, which is as important to the startup path as quick success, Tran says. "They need to be able to build the personality of an entrepreneur," he says. "They'll be able to carry that wherever they go."
Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelancer and regular contributor to Model D.