Sarah Robbins is the Roxborough High School STE(A)M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Scholars Program Coordinator with District 1199C’s Training and Upgrading Fund. The union, representing health care and hospital workers in Philadelphia, looks to bring more science and technology programming into local schools. Her role allows her to work with students and stimulate their interest in these fields through pull out sessions and after-school activities. The program hopes to see more students in underrepresented demographics achieve degrees in these fields and build sustainable careers. To the students, she’s also a trusted mentor and a source of encouragement.
How did you get involved with the STEAM program?
“At first I taught for six years. I then started coordinating a program for kids who had not gotten their college degrees called GED to College. Two years after coordinating that, we received a five-year grant for the STE(A)M scholars program. It supports public school students in Philadelphia, encouraging educational development in STEM and healthcare. At Roxborough, we have about 75 students who we follow for five years, through college and into their post-secondary educations.”
What drew 1199C into the idea of working in a neighborhood high school?
“1199C has had youth programming for roughly 10 years. The training fund in Philadelphia has always been a community-based organization. Our founder Henry Nicholas, who is still the president today, founded it 40 years ago with the intent to be a community organization. Because of that, other 1199Cs around the country only have programs for the children of union members. When they started youth programming about 10 years ago (the high school program) was a natural next step. At Lincoln High School, they partnered with their tech program and have been able to support students there. I see this as an ongoing area of growth for 1199C because I think they want to further development of our communities and the individuals in Philadelphia, so this was a natural occurrence.”
When dealing with students who may be behind in specific skills, what is the process of getting them interested in a specific field?
“I think that it is a combination of routes. There are two Drexel graduate students who come and work with us 20 hours a week on different projects. We were partnered closely with the biotech teacher and she had to go on maternity leave. While she was out we had (the Drexel students) coming in for 30 hours a week, and they actually came directly into the classroom. We were able to do coding units with them, they built speakers, and were able to really use their skills. I think a lot of it is the exposure. They may not all go into the same careers, and they may not even go into STEM careers, but the fact that they are exposed to these experiences and learning opportunities really opens them up.”
One of the things that STEM sees is underrepresentation with minority groups. How have you been able to help reverse this trend?
“Yes, that is the purpose for this whole program. Philadelphia produces one in six doctors in this country, and yet the racial makeup of people in healthcare is mostly white. There is a huge disparity and this is why that program exists; there is also a huge disconnect in math and science with our black and brown students in Philadelphia. That being said, on a day-to-day basis I do see the difference that we make helping our students to persist. We have a space where they know they can come for help.”
How has cooperation with the different partnerships helped make this program successful?
“I think that (the partnerships) are a huge part of this program — the partnership with Drexel’s Excite Center, the partnership with Drexel’s medical college. Each of our generations of students visits there three times a year, so you can see them progress in these small groups. Putting them in real-life situations where they are really problem solving is incredibly important.”
What has been the biggest positive effect that you really didn’t see coming?
“That’s what differentiates this from other programs I have done with 1199C over the years — the fact that we are able to have this web of support around our students and are able to continue to support them provides them with a sense of community and assurance. It also enables us to not have people fall through the cracks. I think we are doing a lot of progressive stuff with our school system right now, but I still think there are a lot of cracks that students can fall through. Having us there as an additional web of support is really helpful.”
— Text and photos by Marco Cerino and Emerson Max.