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One non-profit is helping students in under-represented communities gain access to STEM programs.

Careers of the future will involve technology in increasingly fundamental ways. Equipping students with hands-on experience is the key to success but it’s something underrepresented communities struggle with.

Enter NAF, a nonprofit organization of education, business, and community leaders who work together to ensure high school students are college, career and future ready. Since 1982, NAF has partnered with high-need communities to improve outcomes for students by implementing NAF academies — small learning communities within existing high schools — and currently serves over 100,000 students in 617 academies across the nation. The impact is significant — last year, NAF-affiliated academies reported a 99 percent of graduation rate, compared to 84 percent nationally.[1] 

NAF’s mission around work-based learning, job shadows, mock interviews and paid internships aligned perfectly with global technology company Lenovo and their focus on encouraging interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers. 

Hands-on experience

Over the past five years, NAF and global technology company Lenovo have partnered to create the Lenovo Scholar Network, which offers various high school programs to encourage interest in STEM careers. Initiatives include a mobile app competition, summer internship program and STEM learning classroom activities.

“The Lenovo Scholar Network really embodies exactly what NAF is about,” says Colleen Devery, vice president of strategy at NAF. “Students are getting an opportunity to learn how companies come up with ideas, how the apps are developed — and then do that work themselves.”

Milanka Muecke, director of PR, events and community relations at Lenovo agrees with the benefits this partnership delivers to underrepresented communities. “We’re not only teaching them how to code, but also how to create a business plan and promote their mobile apps, thus giving them the tangible skills they need to find success in the future,” she says.

App competition

One element of the Lenovo Scholar Network is the mobile app development curriculum and annual competition. Teams of students from more than 100 NAF-affiliated academies nationwide spend months using MIT’s App Inventor technology to develop mobile apps for their classrooms and communities. A panel of more than 200 judges select the top six winners and one winner is voted upon online to become the “Fan Favorite.” Winning teams receive brand new Lenovo laptops and accessories.

“What makes the mobile app competition especially meaningful,” notes Matt Zielinski, president of Lenovo North America and a new addition to NAF’s Board of Directors, “is seeing how students with diverse backgrounds draw inspiration from the real-world scenarios that afflict their families and local communities and use coding to solve these problems. By giving them the right tools, proper coaching, and some encouragement, we allow all students to reach their full potential.”

Last year, Brandon Ramirez helped develop SpeakEZ, one of the winning apps, to help users with performance anxiety practice public speaking techniques. For this Lee County High School senior and NAF Academy of Engineering student, the program benefits are immense. “Working with NAF and being a part of the Lenovo Scholar Network has allowed me to gain experiences in subjects I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise,” Ramirez says. “Lenovo provided my school with laptops and tablets to develop and test our apps, and NAF gave us opportunities to demonstrate our app in multiple settings. I’ve been able to explore career paths and make connections that will help me when I enter the workforce.”

Real-world benefits

For Lenovo, this is just the beginning. The program lets NAF student interns spend their summers at Lenovo’s headquarters in Raleigh, NC working alongside full-time employees. They learn about the cutting-edge technology from smartphones to data center and work on projects like the Virtual Reality Classroom, gaming laptops and more. Lenovo employees also visit NAF academies to discuss STEM careers during “Lenovo in the Classroom Day.” To date, the Lenovo Scholar Network has served nearly 12,000 students in over 130 academies across the country.

NAF President JD Hoye celebrates the partnership. “Lenovo is a NAFTrack Certified Hiring partner and has offered NAF high school students paid internships and invested in their preparation to ensure success, for years” she said. “Lenovo is showing our young people on every level just how committed they are in developing their skill sets for future job consideration. That’s a really powerful message!”

U.S. News & World Report: “See High School Graduation Rates State By State” published in May 2018

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