“It takes a village,” said Sean Gaillard, principal of Wiley Magnet Middle School.
He was talking about the Future Innovators mentoring program, a partnership between the Winston-Salem school and Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.
“A magnet school requires unique community support,” Gaillard said. “Last fall, I got with my instructional leadership team and as we thought about innovation we naturally thought about the Innovation Quarter. We also wanted to find a sincere community partner that supported our school mission of ‘Inspiring Innovative Minds.’”
Wiley has a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) curriculum that promotes dialogue and critical thinking, making it a perfect fit with the Innovation Quarter.
Gaillard reached out to the Innovation Quarter, he and his team were invited over for a visit and a conversation about how to make a lasting impact on students who might not otherwise have such an opportunity got rolling.
“We wanted a sustainable program, not just a one-time field trip for our kids,” Gaillard said.
Chad Campbell, communications director for Wake Forest Innovations, came up with the idea of matching 10 mentors from the Innovation Quarter with 10 Wiley students for personalized learning. “Individual mentors saved and changed my life,” Campbell said. “I have no doubt this program can do the same for these students.”
The one-to-one model was suggested and accepted, and the Future Innovators program was born.
At Wiley, teachers selected 10 seventh-grade students who showed an aptitude and high interest in STEAM-related activities to be the first Future Innovators. At the Innovation Quarter, Steve Susalka, associate director of commercialization at Wake Forest Innovations, was charged with finding 10 mentors. He didn’t have to look for long: Ten men and women representing a variety of fields quickly volunteered.
The program began in September with a two-hour session that started with the students meeting their mentors. “It was humbling and energizing to see these professionals connect with kids,” Gaillard said.
The hands-on learning experience during the first session focused on robotics, with the students programming Lego robots to navigate an obstacle course.
“Our goal was to create an engaging program that highlighted the many varied disciplines here in the Innovation Quarter,” Susalka said. “The students learned quickly that there was more than one way to overcome an obstacle and used a trial-and-error approach to generate solutions.”
Daniel Yohannes, associate director of product innovation and commercialization services at Wake Forest Innovations, enjoyed his first experience with the youngsters from Wiley. “The students were a wonderful reminder of how infectious the joy and enthusiasm of learning can be,” he said. “And the lesson of teamwork in the robot challenge and throughout the morning is one that never really gets old.”
In their monthly sessions at the Innovation Quarter throughout the school year, the Future Innovators will learn about microbiology, computer science, regenerative medicine, digital design and biomedical engineering, with all activities related to their classroom studies. And, as in most educational programs, the students will have a test at the end. In May, the Wiley students will present their own innovative ideas to a panel of the Innovation Quarter experts in a contest modeled after the television program “Shark Tank.”
“We believe it is incredibly important to offer these young people the opportunity to gain first-hand knowledge of the exciting developments in science and technology that are happening here,” said Eric Tomlinson, president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. “We’re also looking forward to seeing them demonstrate their intelligence, imagination and ingenuity.”
The mentoring program is off to a promising start. Quickly, new friends have been made and bonds have been formed.
At the end of the session in September, as the students and mentors sat down for a healthy lunch, Susalka’s young protégé called out, “Hey, Steve. We saved you a spot!”