Final CUOS K–12 Education Outreach Program Report, March 2002

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II. What We Do and Have Learned, part 3

A. Themes, part 3

5. Math and science aren’t everything.

While we are about the promotion of math and science literacy, we will not look at it or at people in isolation. We deal with the whole person. Telling a child failing in school to work harder is not the solution, because lack of effort is not the only problem. Lack of confidence, lack of relevance, and lack of assumed basic skills are much more important factors.

    Our conviction about the overriding importance of affective factors to academic performance is rooted in our experience with mentors, as much as with their mentees. Our university student volunteers are already known to have been selected for academic competence and success, but they don’t all succeed here. Why? We hear the same things over and over:

  • I don’t know why I’m here, or why I’m studying [major].
  • I can’t get motivated to study, even though I could probably do the work all right.
  • I’m so uncomfortable and unhappy here, but I don’t know why or what’s missing.
  • I keep telling myself to focus, to work harder, but it’s hard when it seems so pointless.
  • They think I’m smarter than I really am; I’m in over my head and don’t know what to do except to try harder—but that’s not working!

    They are at loose ends because they have not done some of the tough, non-school-related work of adolescence: reflecting on who they are and want to become, establishing their own identities. Like the children and teens with whom they work, they often have not established what psychologists call an “inner locus of control.” They have habitually worked hard to please and meet the expectations of others, but they don’t know what they want out of life. Until they do, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that high school habit of delaying gratification and working hard for a future goal. After all, they’ve made it to college, the Holy Grail of their youth. They find it less satisfying than expected. Now, they have a great deal of personal freedom, living in an exciting college town; many don’t even have to work for pay in order to support themselves. Yet, they have not learned to exercise that freedom in healthy, productive ways, since they are still being buffeted by the expectations of others—to “succeed,” to be popular, to be cool, to be “leaders,” etc. Many are stuck in the superficial high school leadership model of being club officers or doing résumé-padding “community service.” A simply stunning proportion of girls come here to study engineering with little idea of why or of what it is. While they are probably capable of handling the actual class work, they are perfectly lousy at dealing with the crisis of confidence and the qualitative differences inherent in working in a majority-male environment.

    Which leads to ...

6. We fail to attract and keep women and minorities in technical studies and fields because we focus too narrowly on the academic part of their work and their minds.

We have reams of anecdotal evidence on these kinds of problems, but the point is that their academic performance problems are rarely rooted in academics. The reasons for failure or abandonment of a major are not always—or even most often—related to academic preparation or support, inherent capacity or aptitude, and amount or efficiency of effort. Yet these are the aspects most often, if not exclusively, addressed by programs intended to bring more women and minorities into technical fields. We fail to look at the whole person, who has personality components beyond traditional academic capability and performance. Although it was not our original objective, one of our most profound findings has been that doing outreach work addresses these other areas for our volunteers; it fills holes in their lives and their psyches; it energizes and motivates and matures them. When they do poorly at the university, it is often because of what’s missing from their lives. As one put it,

    We arrive here having never done anything for our families or our communities—burnt out on school, school, school. It is so refreshing to see life outside of college in the community. Little kids keep you happy; giving back fills you up and keeps you going. You know, we are more than our studies.  
- UM undergraduate

    Any middle school teacher could diagnose the conflicted priorities here! They are being expected to concentrate on study when, frankly, other things are more prominent on their radar screens. Unfortunately, they are not really clear about the problem. They just know that they can’t seem to make themselves study the way they used to—because they are ready to be more than students. So, what do we do? Nag them to study more! How many of us have told our own teens not to get a potentially distracting job, because “studying is your job”? They may not realize it, but they yearn to be whole people. Our entire system seems designed to make them even more self-centered than is normal for their age, when they really need to be brought out of themselves and to think of others. They are becoming adults; why would we want to keep them in blinders with a narrow focus on just their own “thing”? Society needs all of their gifts and talents.

    Almost paradoxically, we find, over and over, that the human connections built in the mentoring process actually make them better students. They are so relieved and “made whole” by developing empathy and concern for others that they are freed and inspired to study for their own, internal reasons.

    I thought I was unhappy because I was doing poorly in classes. Now I think I was doing poorly because I was unhappy. It’s so much easier to work hard now!

    This syndrome—wherein aptitude and ability cannot seem to overcome motivational problems—appears to surface more often in our engineering undergraduates. We are not certain whether that is a reality or just an artifact, since so many of our most involved volunteers come from that group. If it is true, it may be partly related to the mismatch between student and major that those who feel “pipelined” have repeatedly reported to us. It may stem from “climate” issues, since most of the complaining population is female and/or minority, and the College of Engineering has recognized a problem exists for these groups. But, we suggest, it may also be related to the tendency of this most technologically savvy college to rely upon “virtual interactions.” As UM Provost Nancy Cantor put it in a May 2001 speech, “dependence on social technology ... often breeds isolation.” It can undermine “the social consensus building that cements us together as a community.”

    Plainly put, our young people are lonely, and when they’re lonely, they aren’t the best students they could be. Attending to one problem also addresses the other. When you consider that the mission of the university is to produce well-rounded, competent citizens, it makes perfect sense to embrace this strategy for bringing young adults out of themselves and assisting them in seeing their place in the broader society. That it improves their scholarship and keeps them here, as well, is just a bonus.

7. Science and math outreach cannot and should not be more of the same thing that is not working well in schools.

When we see the shallowness of understanding and the vast gaps in knowledge and skills in the children and teens with whom we work, our first impulse is to spackle those holes with a thick layer of facts. But, almost surely, they have already been exposed to what they should know—they just haven’t “gotten” it. They need a more engaging, less intimidating, truly hands- and minds-on approach to learning. We agree with the assertion of Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman that it would not matter if we did not “cover” every aspect of science, provided that children were given the guidance and the opportunity to think like scientists. Our science club model is built on the idea of communicating the process of science: observing, hypothesizing, experimenting—tapping into the natural curiosity of the young.


We have forgotten what schools are for and how people learn. The old idea, which we still take for granted in everyday life, is that people learn from experience. Everything you do leaves its mark on you. The new idea, which dominates education and business, is that people learn by acquiring information.... The failure of the information acquisition approach is that the rote learning of facts is the most difficult way to learn and the most common cause of forgetting....

    The learning of skills and the acquisition of knowledge will follow from the development of interest in a subject. Forcing anyone to learn skills when there is no interest in or familiarity with the subject usually results in permanent failure and antipathy.

- Frank Smith, “Just a Matter of Time”

    We aim to pique interest in scientific questions, to build confidence in the ability to investigate like a scientist, and to facilitate the deep understanding that comes from experiential learning.

    Learning is about doing, and doing leads to learning. Learning is a change not only in understanding/meaning, it is a change in our capacity to do something with that enlarged understanding. This ability to ‘do’ is called competence and ‘performance.’ Performance and understanding are intimately interconnected in a chicken-and-egg relationship.... Just think about playing a musical instrument.... There’s a constant assessment and feedback process going on that leads to changes in behavior and in understanding why those changes are necessary. Then put that instrumentalist in an ensemble ... and the complexity of the doing/assessing/understanding process gets enormous. The bottom line: thinking (i.e., abstract mental processing) is a very narrow slice of what learning is and a limited way of promoting it, Doing, on the other hand, is a tremendous catalyst for learning.  
- William Spady, Beyond Counterfeit Reforms

B. Voices, part 3

I have to be what I say I am.

- Academic mentor, chemistry major

I thought I was this moral and good person. Sometime last semester I had to face the facts: I said and thought I was this really caring good person, but what did I do with my time and life to be that? Not much. [My mentee] got chemistry okay, but more, she and this program made me see that I have to be what I say I am. Nothing has really taught me that till now. This is really making me think more about my spiritual life, and my just-regular life. Do I really care? I think I’m starting to and it sure is who I want to be. I get really down on people who say they are spiritual or this or that and then really aren’t in their everyday kind of lives. I think they are hypocrites. Now this is way funny, but Reach Out! made me see I was being a hypocrite too. I sure didn’t like that. It was a big thing, you know? It was good, though, too, because then I acted on this. I made so many excuses why I couldn’t get involved awhile back, then I just did it. I’m so glad. I mean I am really glad. Having a friend who kept bugging me to do Reach Out! was good for me too, but I wanted to shoot him last year! My Mom always says you can talk a good line but do you live that good line? I think I know what she means now.

I thought I was going to give more than I got.... I’m so different because of my kids.

- Science club mentor

This service thing was pretty phony before in my life. I did stuff at high school so I had it for my résumé, you know? Then I came here and thought I better do something here. And my parents were telling me I should, too. I’m so glad I got hooked up with Reach Out! I’ve been with my kids for two years. I don’t know how to put it, but service to me isn’t a choice anymore. And I thought I was going to give more than I got when I did service. That just isn’t the way this all works out. I’m so different because of my kids. I have stories in my head about so many times we did things, said things. These kids are going on with me in my life. Their words come up in the weirdest times—they really changed me. I told my mom that I’m more “real” now. Do you understand what I mean? I think that Reach Out! will be the really big thing that I think about when I think about being here [at UM]. And I know that I am closer with people I’ve met here than in the other things I’ve done. I think some of us will keep up with each other, too [after we graduate].

UM Student Volunteer
Affiliations, 1995–2002

African Students Association
Alpha Chi Sigma
Alpha Delta Pi
Alpha Kappa Psi
Alpha Phi Omega
Alpha Sigma Phi
Omega Chi Epsilon
Arnold Air Society
Black Pre-Medical Association
Black Student Monthly
Black Student Network
Caribbean People’s Association
Circle K
Eta Kappa Nu
Filipino American Student Assn.
Golden Key Society
Hindu Students Council
Interfraternity Council
Juggling Arts Club
Kappa Alpha Theta
Marching Band
National Society of Black Engineers
Panhellenic Association
Phi Sigma Pi
Pi Kappa Alpha
Pre-Med Club
Society of Automotive Engineers
Socy. of Minority Engineering Students
Society of Women Engineers
Taiwanese American Students Assn.
Tau Beta Pi
Theta Chi
Volunteer Computer Corps
Women in Science & Engineering

I am beginning to really, really figure out what matters to me.

- Junior engineering student

Who ever asks you to think about your convictions? I don’t think I’ve ever really had someone corner me and make me think about that. But that happened for me this year. I started to ask myself in October just why I was going out to Hikone. I had this talk with myself, asking myself really hard questions. I think I am beginning to really, really figure out what matters to me, my convictions, what’s important in my life. They say it isn’t a dress rehearsal, but I’m really thinking about my life now. My kids have done that to me. I hope they do this someday so they will ask these big questions about themselves, too. I really needed this experience, but I would have told you I didn’t last year!

This experience is changing me and I thought I’d change them.

- Science club mentor

I didn’t think I was racist or, I guess, prejudiced. I don’t even like to say that out loud now! Well, anyhow—no, not me. But I’ll tell you now I was. And my parents were, too. That made me really think about things, too. I really never knew any black kids before Reach Out! And I have to say I was a little scared going out there [a subsidized housing site] at first. That made me really uncomfortable about myself. Service. That is a big word. Everybody wants you to do service—but why? This experience is changing me and I thought I’d change them. I’m dealing with what I used to think about blacks and people who lived in low-cost apartments. There I said that. I don’t like it that I didn’t think about this before. I am now. My kids aren’t very different from me when I was a kid. But I had these advantages that they don’t. Do they deserve to miss out on what I had? No. Who will give them the opportunities I had? It has to start with me. Service. I’m really thinking about that now and frankly, I didn’t really before.

It was a chore for a while and I resented it, to be honest. Sometime, it all changed.

- Engineering student

I started Reach Out! so I could get my service requirement done for HKN. I hate to even tell you that now! But that was my motivation. I was feeling like I had to volunteer to get what I wanted. Forced to do it, I guess, and even mad about that. Why I chose to do Reach Out! I still don’t know. I guess because a friend of mine wanted to. I’m so glad I did this. I want to be one of those people who is known for helping other people, really doing it, not just talking about it. After a couple of weeks, I sort of gave up—this was part of my schedule and I had to block out time to go and things like that. It was a chore for a while and I resented it, to be honest. Sometime, it all changed, and I tell you I couldn’t wait to go see my kids every week. Service requirement. Don’t you think we all should have an internal one? I mean, shouldn’t this be something we all just want to do? It sure has made me like myself more and I have met people I really like. We have this thing in common, I guess. Before, I had just social stuff going on, pretty much. And my kids are great. They really are. And they are so smart. I didn’t think they were at first. How dumb was I, huh?

I like who I am choosing to become.

- Pre-med student

I look back to last year and I can’t believe how I was so on autopilot. I was all locked up in my box and what I did and it was all about me. My boyfriend tells me I’m not the same person anymore and we both like that. I’m hoping he will come with me and work with kids next year. I thought I’d change my kids’ lives. They’re changing my life. And I like who I am choosing to become. They rat on me, I guess. Am I that nice person I say I am? Do I really care about other people? I thought I’d be this nice person in Peace Corps or something else later on. I’m being a nice person right now. I like who I am right now. Reach Out! has really helped me.


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