Eliza Popescu
“It’s extremely rewarding to see how the students are growing and becoming more open and confident,” says Eliza Popescu.
Eliza Popescu
“It’s extremely rewarding to see how the students are growing and becoming more open and confident,” says Eliza Popescu.

Six years in high school for a student is not typically the preferred experience.

However, a growing global trend in education has high school students in specialized curriculums begin college-level courses as early as the 10th grade, putting them on a path to earn both a high school diploma and an associate college degree in six years.

In Canada, the Six Nations Polytechnic (SNP) STEAM Academy, in Brantford, Ontario, offers students such an approach and IBM volunteers are actively supporting the program.

“Rukhsana Syed is the creator of IBM Canada’s ‘Igniting Interests in Technology and Engineering’ (IGNITE) camps and she’s travelled throughout the country giving over 100 IGNITE camps in indigenous communities,” says Eliza Popescu, an IBM national marketing specialist for K-12 education in Canada.

“She and I have been on the project with SNP since June 2017 when we delivered a technology camp for incoming ninth grade students.”

Eliza volunteered to serve as the liaison and project manager between IBM and the school, and Rukhsana Syed, a human resources leader for IBM in Canada, joined her as a co-leader.

Tech Wednesdays

In 2011, Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) formed as a partnership between IBM, the New York City Department of Education and City University of New York to give low-income students a streamlined approach to earn an associate degree in science, technology, engineering or math-related studies.

IBM provides mentors and internships and P-Tech operates as a regular public high school—graduating students with practical skills for the technology-heavy job market.

The model is getting attention from schools around the world, and in 2017 Six Nations Polytechnic adopted a similar approach for its high school.

“Over the years, I’ve been involved in opportunities to give back to Canadian communities,” says Eliza. “Our economy is calling for the development of new-collar skills. As a passionate IBMer, I advocate for more women and minorities in technology and SNP Academy is designed to provide essential 21st-century skills, also known as global competencies.”

SNP STEAM Academy is open to all students and abilities. The curriculum—integrating high school and college topics focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM)—also combines traditional indigenous knowledge with classes that meet education standards across the province.

When SNP Academy initially started classes in Fall, 2017, Eliza and Rukhsana recruited other IBM volunteers to participate.

“IBM volunteers went on site every second Wednesday—we called it Tech Wednesdays—and delivered STEAM-relevant activities,” Eliza.

The activities were based on the needs and asks of the teachers and curriculum owners including technology and non-technology exercises related to leadership and other soft skills to help the students’ personal development, including using the Teaching Respect activity kit from IBM.

Trusted partners in the journey

Today, the IBM team is in an even better position to support SNP.

The volunteers have created tailored activities for each grade for the first semester.

For ninth grade, they have incorporated Internet of Things into the activities starting with a high-level discussion leading to the building and coding of a robot.

For tenth 10, the team wants to increase the students’ understanding of electrical circuits using a breadboard, wiring and micro controllers.

At the end of 2018, an IBM Community Grant helped the volunteers set-up a First Robotics team for the school, which Eliza believes is vital in elevating the students’ interest in STEAM as it provides even more opportunities for real-life, hands-on activities.

Visits organized by the volunteers to various IBM facilities in the area, such as the IBM Software Lab, have also helped the students appreciate the practical aspects of their course work.

“We wouldn’t be able to deliver any activities without volunteers from IBM,” says Eliza. “Rukhsana’s knowledge and understanding of the indigenous culture are priceless. She is a great advocate of the program.”

Other volunteers include Birgit Siegel-Alison, who manages the new hire program for early professionals at IBM, and Markus van Kempen, an IBM venture capitalist, who shared his knowledge and passion with the students as the key volunteer for all activities in the inaugural year.

Szewang Fong, an IBM IT architect, has helped tailor activities to the students’ capabilities and achieve consistency with the class curriculum.

Eliza is quick to say that several other volunteers are vital to the effort.

“I wish we could include everyone’s name. A huge thank you to all the IBM volunteers who have helped or who may help in the future,” says Eliza. “There’s an open invitation for all to join us.”

Trevor Gerard, vice principal at SNP Academy, says it’s important for the students to connect with people from IBM.

“The sense of purpose and connecting with ‘why’ is vital for the students,” he says. “Their daily experience at school is preparation for the future and to show a direct connection with IBM and real people from IBM is key.”

Eliza adds, “The students live in a very challenging socio-economic environment, and as a Canadian, I’m proud to give back to the people of this land. It’s extremely rewarding to see how the students are growing and becoming more open and confident. We are all proud and happy to be their trusted partners on this journey.”

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