On-the-Job Talk Focus of Fast-Paced Lunch Sessions at School

07/08/2015 by Jane Roberts

When you’re a kid who’d like to be an engineer or work in technology, meeting the people who do makes an impression.

Not everyone can name an example of engineering in a theater production, but Sterling Redman immediately thought of Peter Pan’s graceful rise to the rafters last fall at Playhouse on the Square, and not because he’d seen the play. He talked to the artists who work the lift.

When you’re a kid who’d like to be an engineer or work in technology, meeting the people who do — hearing their stories and shaking their hands — makes an impression. That is exactly what Regina Whitley, executive director of the Greater Memphis IT Council, had in mind last summer when she set up LunchBox Wednesdays at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy.

(STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.)

“We adopted the school. We have been here since August. Our board attended the ribbon cutting on the first day of school,” Whitley said.

Every Wednesday, Whitley lined up guest speakers to talk for 20 minutes in the cafeteria while the student body (sixth, seventh and eighth-graders) finished lunch.

Guests included Jennie Brinkman, product development engineer at Medtronic; Ward Archer, founder and president of Archer Records; Jeanne Segal, painter and sculptor; and Dr. Elizabeth Hood, bioAg and entrepreneur professor at Arkansas State University.

Wednesday, Whitley pulled off the first-year finale: Five speakers, one for every discipline at Maxine Smith, a repeat of how LunchBox started on the first Wednesday of school last August.

The exception this time was the fast-paced trivia contest, based on the year’s topics. Students rushed to the mic to answer questions like: Who introduced the World Wide Web? (Tim Berners-Lee, a Swiss computer programmer), and What is a CIO? (chief information officer).

“I was told you all saw this recently, too,” Dr. John Hochstein, chairman of mechanical engineering at the University of Memphis, said to the rapt audience. “What is a medical device?”

Hands flew up across the cafeteria.

“It’s interesting because we get a taste of the real world,” said Terrance Jackson, 12. “They tell us about the jobs that are the core of the academics at the school. These are people who actually have achieved what we are trying to learn.”

Principal Lischa Brooks was looking for ways to accomplish the goal when she had a talk with Whitley. “When the two us sat down last summer, she said, ‘On behalf of the Greater Memphis IT Council, we would love to do that.’ ”

“I said, ‘No. I want this every Wednesday,” Brooks said. “And she did it.”

Shelby County Schools is looking for more school adopters as it works to widen the net of tutors and other adults in students’ lives. The IT Council model costs little more than the “sweat equity” Whitley said it took to find speakers and escort them to the cafeteria.

The sessions mimic the lunchtime learning that happens in industry, but the fast pace, she said, was more a measure of the “scarcity of time” in the school day.

“It was a way to add a program, add information, that was complementary to their studies.”

The IT Council is sponsoring the same program next year.

Maxine Smith STEAM is in the former Fairview Middle School at Central and East Parkway, across the street from Christian Brothers University. In a partnership with CBU, the students work in the university’s engineering lab and library every Thursday.

This spring, there were three applicants for every spot (115) in the sixth-grade class. There are still openings in 7th and 8th grade.

Students who get C’s have to do extra work to get their grades to an A or B.

“It’s actually harder to make a C here than an A or B,” Brooks said. “You have to redo so much work, and you have to come to tutoring. It’s just easier to go ahead and make an A the first time.”

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Jane Roberts