USA Today: Philly organization brings STEM students out of the classroom, into the real world


Jun 5, 2016

Photo: temple media

June 5 2015

In 2009 on the New Brunswick, N.J., campus of Rutgers University, Melissa Lee and her friends decided student organizations were lacking something. That something, it turns out, was a little bit of adventure.

Lee, a Rutgers graduate, says she and some friends were on a trip to Costa Rica in the summer of 2009 when they developed a 12-day itinerary “jam-packed with adventure, education and community service.”

In 2010, that itinerary was shaped into an accredited model for college students in STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – fields to make similar trips to Iceland, Peru, Costa Rica and Philadelphia to observe and experience sustainable energy practices. It also became the basis for The Green Program, a for-profit Philadelphia organization co-founded by Lee.

“What we do is really focus on bridging the gap between traditional textbook learning and make the textbook come to life, the classroom come to life and bring it into reality,” Lee, who is CEO of The Green Program, says. “Being able to bring future engineers, future policy-makers, future architects, into the real world setting of what they can be doing in the future to make positive change down the road – that’s something that’s missing.”

The program aims to eliminate the cycle of students lacking the experience to get a job out of college, but finding themselves unable to gain the necessary experience without those jobs. The study abroad experience, when accessible, brings students “clarity” and “a broad perspective” about their future careers, Lee says.

“I learned along the way going through this that students within STEM don’t necessarily have hands-on opportunities within arms reach every day,” Lee says. “We decided to make a program that can fit between winter, spring and summer breaks. It allows them to be able to study abroad, get internships during summer break and take summer classes so they can graduate on time.

Students in the program come from 210 universities around the world and 70 countries. Brady Halligan, the first student to participate with The Green Program as an undergraduate at Rutgers University in 2009, is now the director of strategic partnerships and enrollment. Halligan, 26, says he had a hard time when he was a student navigating opportunities on campus that related to his career aspirations.

“I don’t think enough is being done on the university campuses to get students outside of the classrooms and exposed to industries and careers that’s going to drive their passion to make them better students and ultimately becoming young professionals really breaking into the industry and creating change,” Halligan says.

Changing the pace of academia on college campuses has started to take off, as more universities have implemented non-traditional areas of study, Halligan says. Halligan says a lot of progressive universities are infusing entrepreneurship curriculums across entire academic catalogues and blending areas of study to give students what they are looking for in majors and minors.

“So, Millennials – we are an interesting group. We’re all over the place, very knowledgeable about what’s going on around the world, very interdisciplinary, focused and creative, ” Halligan says. “Our attention spans aren’t very long because there is always something going on. But that doesn’t mean we’re not disinterested. It means that it takes a lot to get us focused. On the university landscapes, they are very slow at recognizing this. Slowly but surely, they’re starting to move.”

Tomás de’Medici, 25, is the marketing and strategic partnerships associate for the program and its newest member.

A Millennial and Philadelphia resident, de’Medici says urban communities are experiencing an exciting change.

“I think one of the most pressing issues we have is, how do we manage our cities?” de’Medici says. “How do you reinvent them to be more energy efficient and sustainable? [The Green Program] is contributing to that conversation, and also it’s a pathway for young folks to connect aboard, but to bring it back to all the efforts around sustainability in Philadelphia.”

Getting outside the classroom and fusing that knowledge to experiences in the real world, Halligan says, makes better students who can change communities.

“We want to focus on that right time when those students are saying this is where I want to go,” Halligan says. “When they get that fire under their ass after our program, they come back to their universities and they just get after it.”

Author, Emily Rolen, Temple University

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