Mentoring group encourages students to explore new ideas
New London — Standing in the front of a middle-school classroom on a spring morning, Ralph Wood, a leader in the field of technology, asked about 16 students if they would like to avoid mistakes.
He received a resounding "yes."
Wood agreed that everybody wants to avoid mistakes. But he first delivered the bad news: We all make mistakes. Our brains are simply wired that way.
"The good news is we can look to correct our mistakes and the behavior that led to them," said Wood, a retired engineering and research and development manager at United Technologies. "We don't have to make them again."
Wood was speaking to the students at the Renzulli Academy at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, part of a program through a partnership with the Mentoring Corps for Community Development, a nonprofit based in Old Lyme.
The enrichment program brings in experts once a week to deliver a talk to students on high-level topics that would be of interest to major corporations, but delivered at a level understandable to middle-school students, said Richard Shriver of the MCCD.
The students listened attentively during Wood's talk on "mistake-proofing" and wrote down notes as he outlined three levels of techniques that can be applied to prevent collisions at rail crossings or to pass a math test. He introduced them to the checklist, a tool used by professionals, including surgeons and pilots, to outline step-by-step the tasks they need to perform to successfully complete a surgery or fly a plane.
Science teacher Rebecca Cipriani Reyer said the program has introduced students to careers and topics they might not come across in their regular curriculum.
Students have learned about Gross Domestic Product, carbon footprints, black holes, patents and intellectual property and veterinary science, as well as music, art and fashion, among other topics. About half of the topics are related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
"Students cannot aspire to reach a goal that they do not know exists; this program widens their horizons and allows them to see all of the options awaiting them," Cipriani Reyer said. "It encourages them to think, question, and explore plans for their own lives and ways that they can improve the world around them. The Mentoring Corps helps bring the curriculum alive to our students. It gives a purpose and a real-world context for their education."
After Wood spoke about mistake-proofing in the professional world, the students broke into small groups to come up with solutions to prevent mistakes, such as failing a test on fractions or forgetting to bring in a homework assignment. Solutions included setting an alarm on their phones, asking a teacher for help, and creating a checklist.
Shriver and another board member, Dennis Powers, sat in on the lecture and chimed in with some of their thoughts. They encouraged the students to develop "mistake proofing" habits early on and told them that while pilots have memorized the steps they need to take, they never solely rely on their memory, but have a checklist to help prevent mistakes.
Jarelis Benites, a 12-year-old in seventh grade, said she is thinking about a career in law or bio-engineering or engineering. She took away a tip about mistake-proofing that she could use in her academic career.
"Now I realize I have to put an alarm on my phone to make me remember to take my homework," she said.
Evangeline Baez, a 13-year-old student in seventh grade, said she learned how to stop mistakes before they happen with three different levels of mistake-proofing. An earlier lecture on the sinking of the Titanic taught her about the importance of thinking innovatively to help prevent problems.
The program, which takes place during the school day, is voluntary, and students sign up for topics that interest them, Shriver said. It first began with an after-school program in the fall of 2014, and then moved to the school day in the spring.
The eight-week after-school program in the fall of 2014 at the STEM Academy explored STEM careers, said Kate H. McCoy, executive director for strategic planning, government and media relations for New London Public Schools. Volunteers covered topics from solar power to emergency rooms.
The partnership grew to include the Renzulli Academy the following year, she said. Beginning in the fall of 2016, the mentors have been focusing on Renzulli Academy.
The MCCD's mission is to react to any situation in New London or Middlesex Counties where members' expertise could "add sparkle," including to nonprofits, schools, individuals and businesses.
The MCCD also is starting a long-term career mentoring pilot program to mentor three students, at least up to the eleventh grade, as they work toward their dream career.
"Our goal is to have them meet experts in their field of choice, know which subjects are important, understand the possibilities for admissions to colleges of their choice, understand that financing is always possible and keep them motivated en route to their goals," Shriver said. "They are plenty motivated at present."
Cipriani Reyer said the ongoing partnership with the mentors provides students with the sense that they matter, giving them another reason to excel and succeed. The mentors also paired with fifth graders this winter on their projects for the Connecticut Invention Convention.
Cipriani Reyer said that students eagerly come into class in the morning, asking who the speaker is and what the topic is.
Students wanting to pursue a certain career track will have to take classes in high school to prepare for that career, and doing well in those classes typically tracks back to middle school, she said.
“We’re definitely seeing kids more focused,” she said. “They know what they want to do, and they’re starting to develop plans on how to get there.”
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