Valley Metro takes STEM mentoring program for underrepresented students to YouTube

May 24, 2021

Engineering didn’t always seem interesting to Ariadne Payan, a 14-year-old student in the Roosevelt Elementary School District. Her dream career is to become a surgeon, but she wasn’t familiar with what the engineering field entailed.

Payan was part of one of the first cohorts of Valley Metro’s Engineers of the Future program, which introduces students in underrepresented communities to engineering through hands-on activities and mentorship by engineers of color.

Now, she sees engineering at work all around her.

“I hope (other students) will learn that engineering is not an easy job or a boring job once you get to learn more about it,” she said. “We got to work with engineers who made us think about what engineers are doing in the field.”

This year’s program, like much of Valley Metro’s community engagement and assistance efforts, transformed to meet the needs rising from the pandemic. The program opened to all by uploading lessons on its website and on YouTube and allowed students to watch and participate on their own time. Valley Metro recently decided to continue the virtual program into the summer.

The videos, which are a mix of lessons, activities and a virtual field trip, have 1,400 views and about 66 hours of total watch time.

“We have a great program and our engineer mentors wanted to continue it, so really it grew out of necessity,” Valley Metro spokesperson Madeline Phipps said. “Also knowing that students were reliant on virtual, this was another way we can be incorporated into the way students are already learning.”

Creating personal connections

The Engineers of the Future program began in 2018 out of Valley Metro’s workforce development efforts, particularly in south Phoenix, a community the transit agency said it is working with to provide training for jobs in burgeoning industries.

It aims to engage students of color and girls with the work Valley Metro does around Phoenix and foster an interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

“Certainly, we want to reinforce some basic scientific concepts, but it’s great to see them take ownership of something being built in their backyard,” Phipps said.

One way they engage students is with mentors students can identify with. It makes students feel welcome and promotes a deeper learning experience when students are engaged on a personal level, leadership at Roosevelt Elementary School District said.

“Our mentors are relatable to our students,” said Caroline Carlson, science and enrichment specialist at Roosevelt Elementary School District. “They see people that come from a really similar journey, and students really connect with these personal stories.”

‘We can always work the hardest’

One mentor is Tony Santana, an engineer with Valley Metro who grew up in Center City. He went to a Catholic high school nearby, but he didn’t know anything about engineering or what to do with his strong math skills. It wasn’t until a counselor recognized his abilities in math and suggested he try engineering.

He went to Arizona State University and interned with Valley Metro before being brought on as a consultant. He eventually landed a full-time engineering job with the agency and received his master of business administration.

Today, his passion is to make Phoenix “one of the coolest cities in the whole country.”

“I lucked out finding engineering and having a good counselor,” Santana said. “One of the things about this industry is that there’s not a lot of diverse voices. I’ve seen it myself, and I want to help open the door for women and people of color.”

He continues to be driven to be a mentor as he watches his teenage daughter grow up. Being a dad opened up his perspective and clued him in to the lack of women in the field. He wants to make sure young people like her are encouraged to join the profession and usher in new perspectives that are not as prevalent. He said he believes diversity is key to creating effective transportation projects.

“There’s so many pieces to (transportation), and the more diversity we have, the bigger the pool of thought to make a better project,” Santana said.

Students used to have to sign up to be a part of the program, but in the online version, students everywhere can engage with the material. Santana hopes more students give it a chance, even if math or science seem intimidating. He compared learning about engineering to building physical strength. With enough repetition and practice, it becomes easier.

“I may not become Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I’m going to get better,” he said. “We can’t be the best at everything, but we can always work the hardest.”