There were about 2 million licenses awarded in the United States in 2020, and only about a fifth of them were in STEM-related fields, such as computer science, biology or mathematics. One reason: Many students end up changing their minds about these majors. In Chicago, that attrition is seen as an opportunity, and some colleges are trying out a new program designed to keep freshmen interested by bringing technology employers into the classroom.
These schools include the Illinois Institute of Technology, where on a recent Friday afternoon, about 40 computer science majors were scattered around a conference room, avoiding the front two rows. Today the teacher is Sarah Bonn, who works at a local fintech called M1 Finance. She is one of a handful of M1 employees co-teaching a course designed to introduce students to different aspects of computer work.
“Just so I can get my bearings, can you raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of agile development?” Bon asks.
A hand goes up, halfway.
“Okay, so this is going to be new for everyone. Awesome,” Bonn said. His software development talk includes a sketch of a skateboard becoming a car.
This class was more academic. It was also taught by Matthew Bauer, who has been on the school faculty and out of the corporate world for more than 25 years. Like many teachers, he said, he can be reluctant to share the stage. But last year, Bauer began splitting class time with M1 so students could see computer scientists in action.
“There are different reasons why students may not be successful. And we want to make sure the reason is not because they couldn’t imagine themselves…in the quarry,” Bauer said.
One of the challenges is that first courses in areas like computer science can be both complicated and abstract.
“We teach 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…as you learn, you can see, ‘Oh, I see how I can maybe apply this idea to what the company does.'”
In class, Nolan Grace, head of engineering at M1, divides the students into groups to work on a financial education project. It’s meant to give them an idea of what it’s like to work for a fintech company, as well as some project experience to put on their CV.
Grace asks students to think about how they might present student loan information, perhaps through some sort of social media bot, Reddit page, or something else.
“I like the idea of the bot. Usually I get all my own information through social media, so a TikTok video just explaining or an Instagram post or a Tweet from a news source, and they usually link to the article,” said Jared Benman, a student from first year.
Other groups are led by M1 employees who are only present on Zoom. Lots of people are on their laptops, which means the students’ voices echo when they speak. This was all a little shocking, but in a world of remote work, equally realistic.
“It seems less theoretical, because you’re actually doing it, and it’s a real business that’s still going strong,” said freshman Ariah Pittman.
The decision to bring in companies earlier was made by a new non-profit organization called P33. Matthew Muench, its impact manager, worked for the Chicago mayor’s office and remembers when the city lost the bid to be Amazon’s second headquarters (a Marketplace underwriter).
“One of the concerns that emerged there was, ‘Hey, you know what, I think we need to up our game in terms of developing a tech workforce,'” Muench said.
So his organization, P33, connected a group of Chicago-area employees, including those from M1, JPMorgan Chase, and PwC, and got them started teaching at local colleges through a program called Strong. Start. Both employees and companies give of their time.
“Three years from now, they want to be able to hire a lot of great undergraduates, and that’s one way to make sure they have more undergraduates to hire,” Muench said.
Yet some say that to truly 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 of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. “We teach science, we teach math… but we don’t really offer more integrated approaches to STEM.”
At Illinois Tech, freshman Alejandro Martinez can attest to that. He’s 18, a native of Chicago, and says a lot of what he’s learning now is totally new.
“I know I had to ask for help in those two weeks to really know what’s going on,” Martinez said. “I’m a freshman, and I’m the first of my generation, so I don’t really have much to piggyback on.”
Martinez said it was nice to work with a real company, but he was also worried about just passing his midterm exams and would like to have more emotional support to make sure he gets there.
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