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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Making the Most of Mentors for Students

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Melissa Alvarez, 15, spent her summer imagining how to transform an eyesore of a vacant lot in her hometown of Philadelphia. Thanks to her vision -- plus some useful advice from architects and a graphic designer -- the gritty urban space is about to be turned into an outdoor canvas where everyone from muralists to taggers will be welcome to express themselves through art.

Meanwhile, in Cambridge, Mass., teams of high school students have spent the past month dreaming up solutions to local problems that concern them, from bike theft to river pollution. To make their ideas financially sustainable, they've gained insights about the social enterprise model -- using business strategies to accomplish social good -- from MBA students and social entrepreneurs in their community.

It's no accident that, in both cities, adults are stepping up to help students think through their project ideas. Mentors with expertise to share can play a critical role in helping students turn their passion and creativity into do-able action plans. Busy professionals "want to be asked," says Jared Chung, founder of an online mentoring site called CareerVillage. "They're looking for ways to give back."

What kind of advice do students want from mentors? What motivates adults to volunteer their time and expertise for these experiences? And how can educators broker these potentially powerful relationships? Here are some field-tested suggestions from two recent exercises in real-world learning.

"They listened to me."

Alvarez heard about the Lots of Power design competition from her teachers at Science Leadership Academy, who knew she was interested in art and architecture. The summer contest, sponsored by a wind-energy company called Clean Currents, matched high school contestants with design professionals. There was real money at stake (a budget of $2,000 for two winning proposals), plus a chance to do something about those trash-filled lots.

At her first meeting with mentors, Alvarez was surprised when the adults expected her to do most of the talking -- and thinking. "It was a little scary at first when they asked me, what do you want to do?" she admits. "They just said, come up with an idea and we'll help you make it happen." Thinking aloud, she raised concerns that vandalism or graffiti could be a problem on an urban art installation. "Then I just said, what if we invite that stuff into the project? And we went from there."

As Alvarez's idea for an outdoor art canvas came into focus, mentors helped her think through pros and cons. "They helped me think about what could go wrong, what could go right," she says. Using colored lighting, for instance, would add to the costs, but also would draw more attention from the 25,000 commuter train passengers who pass by the site daily. Mentors used their connections to help her locate free resources and stretch the project budget. When Alvarez was building a scale model, mentors chimed in with constructive critique. Convinced she had a worthy project, she poured her energy into an online campaign and won the social media competition.

Unleashing Creativity in Cambridge

For four weeks this fall, 22 student teams from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School devoted their after-school hours to addressing local issues that matter to them. The EF Glocal Challenge, now in its second year, invites youth to tackle tough problems in their community by applying the strategies of social entrepreneurs.

"Students define the issue they care about," explains Shawna Sullivan, who manages the competition for EF Education First, "then develop a social enterprise plan to solve it." An expert panel judges students' five-minute pitches, choosing two teams to compete next spring at the EF Global Student Leaders Summit in Shanghai, China.

The competition is intended to help students develop "the investigative, problem-solving, and business skills that will help them grow into future business leaders," Sullivan says. Those skills don't emerge out of thin air. That's why she recruits MBA students and local business professionals to mentor high school contestants.

For Ivan Castillo, a graduate student at Hult International Business School, volunteering as a mentor was an easy decision. A former math teacher, he wants to continue helping young people. As soon as he met his team, he was impressed by their energy and focus. "They came in already motivated," he said, and determined to solve the bike theft problem in their community. "They understood the social part of the problem, but they were missing the business knowledge. That's where I could help." He saw real value in one of their ideas: a bike registration database to help police return recovered bikes to their owners.

Jenny Weiss is fundraising and event director for the Harbus Foundation, a unique philanthropy run by MBA students at Harvard Business School. Mentoring a high school team gave her a way to share the social enterprise strategies she uses in her career. She was a matched with an all-girl. Their issue came from personal experience. All members of a crew team, the girls had close-up views of the trash that lines the waterways of Boston. On multiple occasions, they had spotted a seagull with a fish hook through its beak. They came up with an idea to recruit volunteers and turn riverside trash into sculpture and other forms of art. Weiss says she provided "a sounding board. We spent time talking about different business models that could work," but always kept the focus "on the issue they care about."

Improving the Pitch

To help teams polish their pitches, Cambridge students had a dress rehearsal in front of a dozen seasoned experts -- entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and others recruited by Geoff Mamet, founder of Impact Hub Boston. Finding willing volunteers wasn't hard. "Here's an opportunity for people in business to do something they can do," Mamet says. "That resonates with people."

What should mentors know about giving feedback to kids?

"First, you need to recognize how hard it is to ask teenagers to walk into a room of adults and present their ideas. We started the feedback by complimenting them," Mamet says.

From there, critiques got more focused. "Where did their story break down? Were there pieces that didn't connect?" Mamet advised one team to streamline its presentation. "There was too much going on. It would be stronger if they simplified and clarified their message."

Jared Chung of CareerVillage was one of the panelists. "Adults were surprised at how awesome these students were," he says. "You watch a pitch and start wondering, where will these kids go? You may want to hire them in a few years."

For both mentors and students, such interactions "can be powerful. Sometimes you can give feedback and see the light bulb go off. That's exciting," Chung says. "It's a discrete way for professionals to contribute. It's high impact, short term, and you're being pulled for your expertise."

More broadly, Chung says, such discussions can get students thinking more critically about careers. "We need to have more conversations, and better conversations, with young people about their futures." He's convinced that plenty of potential mentors are standing by, waiting for an invitation to engage. Chung encourages educators "to invite professionals to come share their stories. Make it easy for them to volunteer." His organization provides a platform where students can ask questions about careers and get responses from professionals.

Have you connected your students with mentors? How do you prepare youth and adults for positive experiences? Please share your stories in the comments.

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