Could getting more tech employees in classrooms help college students stick with STEM?

Stephanie Hughes Oct 28, 2022
Heard on:
Alejandro Martinez, left, and Nate Beasley listen to an M1 employee through Zoom in a class at Illinois Tech. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

Could getting more tech employees in classrooms help college students stick with STEM?

Stephanie Hughes Oct 28, 2022
Heard on:
Alejandro Martinez, left, and Nate Beasley listen to an M1 employee through Zoom in a class at Illinois Tech. Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace

There were about 2 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in the United States in 2020, and only about a fifth of them were in STEM-related fields, like computer science, biology or math. One reason: Lots of college students end up changing their minds about those majors. In Chicago, that attrition is being viewed as an opportunity, and some colleges are trying a new program meant to keep college freshmen interested by bringing tech employers into the classroom.

Those schools include the Illinois Institute of Technology, where, on a recent Friday afternoon, about 40 computer science majors were scattered in a lecture hall, avoiding the first two rows. Today, the teacher is Sarah Bonn, who works at a local fintech company called M1 Finance. She’s one of a handful of M1 employees co-teaching a course meant to introduce students to different aspects of working in computer science.

“Just so I can get some bearings, can you raise your hand if you’ve heard of agile development before?” Bonn asks. 

One hand goes up, halfway. 

“All right, so it’s gonna be new for everyone. Great,” Bonn said. Her talk on software development includes a sketch of a skateboard becoming a car. 

Sarah Bonn of M1 Finance gives a lecture on agile development to a class of first-year students at Illinois Tech. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

This class used to be more academic. It was also taught by Matthew Bauer, who’s been on the school’s faculty and out of the corporate world for more than 25 years. Like lots of faculty, he said, he can be reluctant to share the stage. But last year, Bauer started splitting classroom time with M1 so students could see working computer scientists in action. 

“There’s different reasons why students maybe don’t make it. And we want to make sure that the reason is not because they couldn’t picture themselves … in the career,” Bauer said. 

Illinois Tech is private, and tuition is $48,670 a year. About 70% of students graduate, which is better than the national average, but not where the school wants it to be. 

One of the challenges is that early courses in fields like computer science can be both complicated and abstract.

“We’re teaching you these concepts, but you don’t see the connection between the concepts and how it’s going to play out in the world,” said Lance Fortnow, dean of the College of Computing at Illinois Tech. “This idea of bringing companies in early … then as you’re learning, you can see, ‘Oh, I see how maybe I can apply this idea to what the company is doing.'”

In the classroom, Nolan Grace, an engineering manager at M1, breaks the students into groups to work on a financial literacy project. It’s meant to give them a sense of what it’s like to work for a fintech company, as well as some project experience to put on their resumes. 

Grace asks students to brainstorm ideas on how they could present information on student loans, perhaps through a kind of social media bot, a Reddit page or something else entirely. 

“I like the bot idea. I usually get all my own information through social media, so a TikTok video just explaining or an Instagram post or a Tweet that’s from a news source, and they usually link to the article,” said Jared Benman, a first-year student.

Other groups are led by M1 employees who are only present on Zoom. A lot of people are on their laptops, which means the students voices’ echo when they speak up. This was all kinda jarring, but in a world of remote work, also realistic.

“It feels less theoretical, because you’re actually doing it, and they’re an actual company who’s still in the mix,” said Ariah Pittman, a first-year student.

Etornam Adevor, left, and Ariah Pittman, first-year students at Illinois Tech, talk with an M1 employee who’s present virtually. (Stephanie Hughes/Marketplace)

The decision to bring in companies early was led by a new nonprofit called P33. Matthew Muench, its chief impact officer, used to work for the Chicago mayor’s office and remembers when the city lost the bid to be the second headquarters for Amazon (a Marketplace underwriter). 

“One of the concerns that kind of emerged there was, ‘Hey, you know what, I think we need to up our game in terms of developing a technology workforce,’” Muench said. 

So his organization, P33, connected a bunch of Chicago-area employees, including those at M1, JPMorgan Chase and PwC, and had them start teaching at local colleges through a program called Strong Start. Both the employees and the companies are volunteering their time. 

“Three years from now, they want to be able to hire a lot of great undergraduates, and this is a way to ensure they have more undergraduates to hire,” Muench said.

Still, some say in order to really influence who sticks with computer science and engineering, students need to encounter it even earlier. 

“We don’t explicitly teach engineering in high school,” said Michael Hansen with the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. “We teach science, we teach math … but we don’t actually provide more integrated approaches to STEM.”

At Illinois Tech, first-year student Alejandro Martinez can attest to that. He’s 18, a Chicago native, and said a lot of what he’s learning now is totally new.

“I know I’ve had to ask help over the course of these couple of weeks to actually know what’s going on,” Martinez said. “I’m a first-year, and I’m the first of my generation, so I don’t really have that much to piggyback off.”

Martinez said it’s nice to be working with an actual company, but he’s also worried about just getting through his midterms and would love to have more emotional support to ensure that he’ll make it.

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