Vancouver’s nConnect helps create a bridge into STEM for hundreds of students

You may be familiar with our next “Profiles in Science” profilee, if you’ve followed our blog in recent months, wherein I’ve been telling you about efforts and organizations that aim to promote STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — in the Vancouver, Washington, area.

Either way, it’s time for you to meet Matthew Goosen, he’s the program coordinator for an organization called nConnect, which works with Vancouver-area students to encourage their pursuit and success in STEM.

Matthew Goosen is gggg of nConnect ggg. Photo courtesy of Goosen

Matthew Goosen got his start with the nConnect program as a Job Corps volunteer. Now he is the program’s coordinator. Photo courtesy of Goosen

In the following Q&A, Goosen will explain the program’s work, how he came to nConnect and how he tries to connect to the wider STEM community in the Portland-Vancouver area.

Susannah L. Bodman

1. Tell us about the nConnect program and how it works to encourage people to pursue education and prepare for careers in STEM.

nConnect is a collective impact organization that works with local businesses and professionals in the Vancouver-Portland area to help make students’ learning relevant. All too often, our youth are not aware of the actual opportunities out there and what they need to do to prepare for success after school. Our organization works to fix this by bringing in professionals in fields ranging from engineering to design to HR to talk about their work and career paths, as well as working hands-on with students through mock interview and resume workshops.

2. Where do the students come from that you work with, and what is their age range?

At present, we work with middle and high school students (grades 6 to 12, ages 11 to 18) in the Vancouver and Evergreen districts here in Southwest Washington. We do some work with a couple of the high schools in Portland Public Schools as well. We are hoping to increase the number of schools and districts with which we work in the near future.

3. Who are you looking for to serve as mentors in your program, e.g. fields they come from or a particular experience or skills they have? Can you give examples of the types of STEM professionals who have been mentors in the past?

It depends on the experiences, strengths and comfortability of each volunteer. For instance, ideally, we would want someone from an HR background or with experience in hiring to help with the resume and interviewing events. For those wanting to engage students through discussing their career and educational backgrounds in panel discussions or through small group discussions, we tend to have a higher representation from the tech and engineering fields, but we work with individuals employed by a number of organizations, including Adidas; HP; PeaceHealth; and local, state and federal agencies, to name only a few. We also have a number of retirees who continue to share their passion and knowledge with students. There are also more long-term commitments working with Advanced Placement classes, and, for those, we look for professionals in pertinent fields who are able to come in once or twice a week to work directly with an entire class — to give an example, we would look to connect a computer science class with a programmer who knows Java, as it is the language used on the test. For anyone wishing to work with youth, though, our volunteers are able to bring their story and skills to life while also having fun in educating the students. More than a few volunteers initially come into our program feeling uncertain of their engagement skills, particularly with young adults, but I think the casual format of our events and the support we provide for our volunteers help them realize these are talents they already have.

4. How many students have been helped to date, and how do you measure their success and that of your program?

At present, we have worked with close to 1,500 individual students this school year. As we often work with a class more than once with the workshops (one class may have a guest speaker one month and a panel discussion the next), we have nearly doubled in terms of total engagements of students from last year, with the number of total student engagements in the 2014-15 school year standing at about 1,300. We regularly take surveys and collect the feedback of students, teachers and volunteers with each event to ensure we are truly meeting our goals and what those participants, our most important stakeholders, expect to gain from their experiences. Our program has shifted focus and updated our portfolio on more than one occasion to ensure we are best able to do such.

5. What are the benefits mentors find in being involved with the program? What feedback do you hear from their employers in terms of benefits they see?

I think the thing we hear the most from our volunteers is that this is something that they — and I think most of us can say the same — were not exposed. Opportunities to learn about careers and practicing interviewing, resume writing, and networking and professional communication skills aren’t something one finds in a lot of schools. So for a lot of volunteers, this is a chance for them to benefit future generations by giving them information and skills we often went without knowing much about until we needed to use them. There’s also opportunities for volunteers to network with other professionals while participating in the events, and these are great ways for organizations to engage in outreach to a young audience by both helping the students and exposing them to their work, mission, etc.

6. Why do you think STEM-mentoring programs are needed and important, in general and in the local area in particular? What are the long-term impacts you hope to see from nConnect in the Vancouver-area community?

When evaluating our performance with the rest of the world, the United States still lags behind a number of nations in terms of student performance in math and science. Part of the problem is that students aren’t aware, even as STEM-related jobs continue to grow at a strong rate in our region, how their learning is applicable to the world of work. Even the “fun” jobs such as graphic design require some degree of STEM knowledge and analytical thought processes. We hope that, by learning of the applicability of such skills and knowledge, students will not only engage themselves in those classes but hopefully challenge themselves to take harder coursework to boost their knowledge base and make themselves more competitive as students and future employees. We hope that our students can prepare themselves for jobs that pay a living wage and beyond in STEM-related sectors, ideally here in Southwest Washington and the Portland metro area. I like to think of our work as “planting seeds” for the future of the Silicon Forest.

7. How did you come to work with the program? Do you have a background in STEM yourself or STEM education? If yes, who or what inspired you to pursue STEM?

Funny enough, my educational background is more so in the humanities, but I’ve always had an appreciation of the sciences and have seen the change in how much more reliant our regional economy is upon STEM-related fields and occupations, and thusly how much more investment is going toward that, over the last couple of decades. I came into the program originally as a volunteer while working for the Job Corps program, which has a heavy focus on medical and hard trade occupations, to both pitch the program and help students develop professional skills. For me, I see this role as an opportunity to help in positively shaping the future for our students by giving them the tools and guidance needed to be successful after high school, whether they go on to college or directly into a career. Particularly with the latter, as more and more students are unaware of apprenticeships and other opportunities with a high earning potential as society continues to stress college — particularly four-year institutions — as being the only way to be successful later in life. However, given the range of opportunities that are actually out there, a lot of students don’t know that going on to a university is only one option.

8. Outside of work, how do you like to connect to the STEM community and science happenings around the Portland-Vancouver area?

I tend to go to a lot of networking and meetup-type events, provided my calendar allows. We recently started our own group, the Vancouver STEM Coffee Hour, to help connect individuals in all relevant fields here in Clark County and beyond. I’d like to start attending more speaker and film events pertaining to the subjects, if only to increase my own knowledge while having some fun in process.

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If you’d like to get involved with nConnect as a mentor or volunteer, check out the program’s website or give its staff a call at 360-952-3610.

And if you’d like to be featured in one our “Profiles in Science” posts, email your responses to the questions we posted earlier on this blog, along with a photo of yourself, to sciwhat@gmail.com, and we may choose to feature you on this blog.

Susannah L. Bodman
Twitter: @Sciwhat
Facebook: Sciwhat.Science

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