Hughes STEM High School a springboard for effective, community-based learning

About 140 juniors from Hughes STEM High School are now more knowledgeable, more confident and a step closer to preparing for their futures after having participated in a speed mentoring session last Thursday, March 12.
The gathering brought together mentors from a cross-sector of fields, including the four pathways Hughes offers students at the end of their sophomore year when determining a major for their final two years of high school: health, engineering, plant and animal sciences and information technology.
For students like Reco Gunnels, who’s in the IT pathway and plans to attend the University of Cincinnati to study information security systems, the mentoring session was a way to gain exposure to new opportunities and connections.
“I met a couple people, Patrick and Jermaine, whom I can use as resources and for guidance, because they are in the same field that I aspire to be in,” Gunnels says. “The next step is for me to connect with them in the future and build a relationship.”
And that’s the goal, according to Kathie Maynard, who serves as director of community partnerships at UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice & Human Services and who also provides leadership through her involvement with the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative (GCSC).
“We know it’s important in mentoring situations that it’s someone who looks like me, that I can relate to and say, ‘They did this; I could, too; I see myself there,’” Maynard says. “So the idea of speed mentoring is to bring together people from STEM and other professions, primarily who are African American, because it mirrors the population at Hughes.”

Connecting Hughes with Uptown employers
Lamont Taylor, human resources manager at Frisch’s and member of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Herbert R. Brown Society — which engages African American leaders as “a gathering of givers” — offered insight to students as someone who recognizes first-hand the value of mentorship.
Taylor says he found his path in life and his passion for human resources by accident.
“Back in 1999, I was president of the Corryville Community Council,” Taylor says. “I didn't have a GED, didn't finish high school, but I was involved. I knew I had to transition into the workforce but didn't know how to do it.”
At the time, Taylor says he noticed two things occurring in Corryville: “a lot of construction and a lot of people in need of jobs.”
He talked for two hours with the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati back then in the context of what he thought was a meeting but which transformed into an interview that landed Taylor his first big break as a recruiter and job developer.
“I think it's important for everybody to share their story — whether it's a humble story or a good story — it's imperative that we share with those that come behind us or alongside us so they can gain a wealth of the knowledge we have,” Taylor says. “You can't live long enough to go through everything or experience everything, but you surely can spend time and listen to those who have gone through some things.”
The March 12 event at Hughes was made possible through a joint effort initiated by the United Way — whose “bold goal” is that 85 percent of youth graduate from high school by the year 2020 — with collaboration from UC, GCSC, Partners for a Competitive Workforce and Cincinnati Public Schools’ My Tomorrow*ed.
Because of these partnerships and because of opportunities for experiential learning, Hughes students are gaining access to a wealth of opportunities. UC, for instance, is undertaking what Maynard calls a “system-wide” endeavor to get underrepresented individuals into the university and especially into STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math).
“In Southwest Ohio, there are 2,000 persistently vacant IT jobs, so that means there’s an opportunity for our students,” says Hughes Principal Kathy Wright, who also serves as an educational advocate, science aficionado and champion for her students. “Hughes happens to sit in Uptown, so University Hospital is right there, Children’s Hospital and Christ Hospital — we’re surrounded by the healthcare field. Duke Energy, GE, P&G, they’re always looking for engineers, and then plant and animal sciences, there’s the Cincinnati Zoo. What an opportunity we have to create touch-points with them and have our kids be ready, prepared and motivated to go into those spaces and fulfill those needs.”
And the students are certainly prepared and motivated, as Wright works closely with teachers and community partners to develop engaging curricula that emphasize project-based learning so students can experience the same passion about learning that Wright says she did growing up.  

Students learning to be independent one day
“I don’t think there’s anything greater than really turning kids on to the discovery that happens when powerful experiential learning happens inside of a classroom,” Wright says.
Take this example, for instance: A teacher loves making barbecue and wants to share that passion with his students. So how can that passion transfer in a way that connects to learning? 
“There’s the food chemistry angle, so we connected with Miami University to get a food chemist in for that,” Wright says. “We connected with Cincinnati State and their test kitchens they have over there, so they could learn the process behind that. We used technology throughout, so the kids created a blog. There’s a multimedia piece — the ‘T’ is there.”
And just like that the "Big Red Barbecue" was born and is now an annual event. Local barbecue restaurants join in the fun, and at the end of the week the lesson comes to a close with a cook-off in which a barbecue king and queen are crowned.
Students even caught the attention of Steven Raichlen, host of PBS’ Primal Grill and author of The Barbecue Bible, with their blog, which Raichlen highlights on his own blog each year. He sends barbecue staples to Hughes — like spatulas and food thermometers — which end up being distributed as prizes to the winners each year.
“On the surface it may seem like they’re just cooking, but it’s much bigger because they’re learning chemistry,” Wright says. “They’re learning tools to help them be independent one day, learning how to cook and learning collaboration, how to work with people, and there’s this whole tech piece. So the experience resonates with them and they want to learn more.
“The intent is to be successful — of course I want Hughes to be successful all the time — but the kids at every other school are just as important to me. If we can become a springboard, that’s exactly what I want to have happen, because it’s the right thing to do for kids at this school, in CPS and in Southwest Ohio.”  
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Brittany York is a college educator, freelance writer, and the event producer for Ohio Civics Essential. She loves travel and photography. Keep up with Brittany on Instagram @brittbrittbrittbrittany.