Mentors aid STEM push

nConnect matches high-tech professionals with high schools that offer advanced courses

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



nConnect mentors

nConnect began in 2005 with 7 physics mentors from nLight serving 36 students.

2012: 200 mentors and volunteers served more than 1,000 students

Mentors work at Hewlett-Packard, nLight, Sharp, Underwriters Laboratories, CID Bio-Science, Bonneville Power Administration, Frito-Lay, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, Sigma Design, Columbia Machine and more.

Become a mentor

Manlio Castillo, 360-567-3182


The demand for highly trained workers in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- has created a need for advanced STEM training in high school classrooms. But finding highly qualified teachers with real-world STEM experience is challenging. One key reason is that STEM salaries are considerably higher than teacher salaries.

In Clark County high school classrooms, engineers and other STEM professionals are meeting the demand by volunteering in advanced STEM classes.

Leading the charge to connect STEM volunteers with classroom teachers is nConnect, the educational nonprofit founded by Scott Keeney, cofounder and president of nLight, a Vancouver semiconductor laser manufacturer.

Keeney spoke as a panelist Monday at the second annual STEM Summit held at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond. The event attracted Gov. Jay Inslee and some of the state's top business and education leaders.

"I came away from the STEM Summit thinking that what we're doing in Southwest Washington is pretty distinctive," Keeney said. "nConnect is very specific toward mentorships and internships. If you ask scientists and engineers how they got into their field, it's often a teacher or mentor who influenced what courses and career paths they took."

Keeney feels that the businesses and community organizations need to supplement the work going on in schools. "By drawing in mentors, we can fill those gaps," he said.

Chris Zwach, a Hewlett-Packard engineer and nConnect mentor who teaches computer programming at iTech Preparatory High School, said he wants to give students the kind of help he received that shaped his own career.

"I've been fortunate to have had a number of fantastic teachers and mentors who have helped guide me," he said."My primary motivation for volunteering has been to hopefully have a similar impact and to encourage kids who may have otherwise written off STEM subjects to reconsider that decision."

Here are three examples of how nConnect has placed Zwach and other Hewlett-Packard employees in Clark County classrooms.

Mentor turned teacher

• Mentor turned teacher: David Britton

• Retired electromagnetic compatibility engineer, HP

• Teacher: Pat Redding

• Union and Evergreen high schools

After David Britton opted for early retirement from Hewlett-Packard, he volunteered at Union High School through nConnect's mentor program in an engineering design class and in a computer programming class taught by Patricia Redding, a former HP employee turned teacher.Being a classroom mentor was such a positive experience for Britton that four months later, he returned to school for what he calls his "encore" career. Through the Career and Technical Education teacher certification program at the Clark County Skills Center, Britton is taking evening classes toward his CTE certificate, which he will complete in two years.

Meanwhile, this year he was hired by Evergreen Public Schools to teach Advanced Placement Java programming and introduction to programming in the same classroom where he volunteered as a mentor.

"STEM professionals bring a relevance to the classroom that is difficult to duplicate otherwise," Britton said. "We know what employers need and are looking for from direct experience. We know why the math or science is important to employers."

In his enthusiasm, Britton recruited two other HP computer scientists to mentor at Union and Evergreen high schools this year.

Assisting substitute teachers

• Mentor: John Sturman

• Hardware design engineer, Hewlett-Packard

• Teacher: Mitchell Heynemann

• Union High School

When Mitch Heynemann, an Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Union High School, requests a substitute teacher to fill in, he also counts on John Sturman, a hardware design engineer at Hewlett-Packard, to provide hands-on classroom help for the substitute.Substitute teachers often don't have the knowledge to step in and teach rigorous AP math and science classes. But Sturman, an nConnect mentor, is willing and able to continue the momentum in the classroom.

Sturman also regularly volunteers as a classroom mentor, offering optional sessions for students who want additional help.

"I can share my real-world applications of calculus with the students to reinforce the fact that these topics are relevant to many situations," Sturman said. "I consciously explain to students the benefits, especially job success examples. This shows students that a test result is not the only benefit for learning."

"The students who attend the (optional) mentoring sessions with John Sturman complete more assignments correctly and score higher on assessments than the students who do not attend regularly," Heynemann said.

Teaching computer programming

• Mentor: Chris Zwach

• Lead application security engineer, Hewlett-Packard

• Teacher: Tom Wolverton

• iTech Preparatory High School

Chris Zwach, a Hewlett-Packard engineer, is teaching loop syntax and setting an integer in a computer programming class at iTech Preparatory High School.His after-school class has challenging homework assignments. Students don't earn credit. Yet more than a quarter of the school's students signed up for the voluntary class because they want hands-on programming experience.

"Chris has a real-world, working knowledge of computer languages that he helps the students decipher," said Tom Wolverton, the iTech Prep teacher who works with Zwach.

Student abilities range from novice to advanced, Wolverton said. For the novices, Zwach provides links to online video lessons. He assigns more challenging tasks and provides high-level feedback to advanced students.

Zwach remembers the gratification he felt when a student who had been struggling with the material got a first program to run.

"Prior to the first program, the material can seem foreign and useless," Zwach said. "But after that, the knowledge becomes tangible."

"There's a big gap between scientists and students," said Wolverton. "The kids are hungry for learning like this."