School of tech

MAP program seeks to bolster ranks of advanced placement classrooms in Clark County high schools

Recent findings by the Trans International Mathematics and Science Study revealed the United States ranks 15th in the world for high school-level math and dead last in physics. Also, the National Science Foundation reports the U.S. is last in line for engineering, producing 60,000 engineering graduates each year. China is on top, producing 220,000. The report puts the U.S. at the bottom of a list that includes the major nations in both Europe and Asia.

These trends are impacting Northwest technology companies.

Scott Keeney, president and CEO of Vancouver-based semiconductor diode laser manufacturer nLight Photonics, and some of his employees decided last year to take steps to change the statistics. The result is the Mentoring Advanced Placement program, a volunteer operation that brings technology professionals into contact with students at Clark County high schools in an effort to tutor, challenge and advise them as they consider applying for advanced placement coursework in math and science.

In founding the program, nLight partnered with the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council; the Vancouver, Washougal, Camas and Evergreen school districts; and Educational Service District 112. SWWDC Project Manager Brandi Stewart-Wood said participating in the program made perfect sense to her organization.

"We are always looking for ways to link the business community with the educational community," Stewart-Wood said. "(MAP) aligns with making sure our local workforce is competitive."

Stewart said the first year for the program was about just getting the framework together.

In the first year, school districts participated through in-kind donations. This year, they’re paying to participate – the result of efforts from the MAP Board of Directors. Districts pay a percentage based on student population, and together schools have generated $60,000 for this year’s program. The funding has allowed MAP to purchase supplies, conduct mailings and plan events as well as hire one full time employee to conduct outreach and generate support.

MAP volunteers dedicate 45 hours per year to working with students on problem solving, project development, preparation for AP placement exams and advising on career path decisions. Students also take field trips to tech companies to get hands-on experience. The goal of MAP is to get more kids involved in technology-focused studies. It seems to be working; the program began last year with 25 students enrolled and nLight alone providing seven mentors. This year more than 25 mentors from nLight, Sharp Microelectronics, Underwriters Laboratories, Hewlett Packard and law firm Kreiger IP work with more than 100 kids at 10 high schools.

Driving it home

On a more basic level, MAP mentors help students make a connection between the classroom and the work world.

"Students just don’t have a good sense of the connection between what they’re learning and how it applies to the real world," Keeney said.

Skyview High School physics teacher Carol Ramsey has nine students enrolled in the MAP program, and hosts nLight senior scientist and project manager Shabbir Bashar as a mentor.

"I have found that the kids get into problems more when Shabbir explains how he uses the subject in his work," she said.

Bashar, who holds a Ph.D. in electrical and electronics engineering from Kings College in London and spent his toddler years taking telephone sets apart, spends one hour in the classroom twice a month as part of his volunteer work. He said he is excited to be working with students that have similar interests.

"It’s great to be working with minds that haven’t been contaminated yet by university training," he said.

Bashar said the students he mentors range from the serious college-bound to kids who are just curious, to the ones who spend their free time solving complex mathematical problems.

More important than knowledge

In terms of real world applications, Bashar sees promise in even the most imaginative ideas from the students.

"There’s this one guy who’s really into Star Wars," Bashar said. "He wants to go out and make a holographic projection of Princess Leia."

Bashar said such ideas are at the core of the MAP program.

"It’s all about taking a wild idea and helping to develop it into a real application, rather than just dismissing it," he said. "(The Princess Leia hologram) sounded to me like a Ph.D. project."

Bashar said a holographic projection could have real world applications for conference calls or even to help the medical profession, allowing surgeons to view an operation in three dimensions half a world away.

"It’s very exciting," Bashar said, "he’s just taking it to a new level."

The Map program also gives way to more practical projects. Two students in Ramsey’s class hope to develop a machine that would clean the transparencies on overhead projectors.

"I have two kids who noticed that I spend 40 minutes a day cleaning those transparencies by hand," she said. "They actually did market research and cost analyses with other teachers and determined they could sell their invention. I know I would buy one."

Expanding universe

While the program started with mentors in physics alone, it has branched out to include chemistry as well. Karina Wagner is a safety compliance engineer with Camas-based Underwriters Laboratories. She brings her experience and a degree in chemical engineering from the University of California, Davis, to work with six students in Megan Botnen’s AP chemistry class at Skyview. She’s one of three mentors from the product safety compliance testing firm.

"They just seem to really be having a lot of fun with it," she said of the students.

In addition to classroom participation, MAP mentors also help students to network with great minds outside their school and develop their projects well into college. Skyview senior Nick Ewing wants to develop software that would translate Japanese to English. Bashar is working to put him in contact with a software engineer and a Japanese linguist, two friends of his from college.

"This is just another way we try to help the students," he said. "We try to use our connections to help them develop their ideas."

The MAP program plans to expand to include college students next year, sending mentors to Washington State University Vancouver. Stewart said the program has also applied to the state for nonprofit status and there are plans to write grants for future operation.

"Applied learning is a very powerful tool," Stewart-Wood said. "The WDC would some day like to see mentoring in every high school classroom."

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