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October 19, 2017
By Deanna Crusco
On any given morning, students participating in FirstHand programs can be found shuffling into the lab, getting their notebooks out, and ripping into a snack pack. Class starts with a brain teaser, like connecting words. Today, students are asked to find a word that connects different pairs of words – like ‘bed’ and ‘paper.’ Once the students land on ‘sheet,’ it’s time to transition into their lesson. As students grab their lab coats and their goggles, their alter egos emerge.
If you haven’t guessed already, this isn’t your typical science class. Nor is it your typical mentoring program.
FirstHand leverages the Science Center’s network of scientists and entrepreneurs as it combines the STEAM subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and math into a hands-on learning experience for middle and high-school students. Throughout the program, students engineer prototypes and design experiments, learning about the real-world applications of their work along the way.
Mentors are an important part of what makes the students’ experience at FirstHand so transformative. But what exactly does mentoring with FirstHand actually look like?
At Polymer Play, one of several programs offered by FirstHand, students learn the ins and outs of material science while experimenting with polymers and creating bioplastics. Using laser cutters, power tools, heat presses and soldering irons, students work in teams to design a final project that they present to the community.
This semester, students from Philadelphia schools, James Rhoads, Girard College, Harambee Institute of Science and Technology, SLA Middle School, KIPP West, and Alain Locke are participating in Polymer Play and being mentored by professionals at the Dynamic Multifunctional Materials Lab (DMML) at Drexel University. Mentors are carefully matched with FirstHand programs to ensure the classroom themes are connected to the mentors’ professional background. And this unique model of mentorship isn’t going unnoticed. Last week, FirstHand was honored with the Excellence in Volunteer Experience award from US2020 – making this the second time in three years FirstHand has won this award from US2020!
FirstHand mentors are often professionals from uCity Square-based companies whose background overlaps with program themes. Typically, mentors are asked to volunteer 30 minutes of their time with classes of 10-14 students, no more than six times a year. They are asked to design a 30-minute interactive experience, connecting their work to the material being covered in the program. Mentors also provide students with a tour of their lab or workspace, further connecting the students’ experience to the real world.
In a recent Lab Coat Confidential, Thomas Castner, a mentor from Halo Labs says, “FirstHand is about giving back to the Philadelphia area. The Science Center has a lot of good things going on here, and we want to keep a lot of good things going on here. So how do you do that? You give that little extra 5% and just do it.”
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, you’re in luck - FirstHand is always looking for mentors! Please email Maya Heiland to learn more about how to get involved.