Get outside the bubble and see some inspiration

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 21, 2017

Long ago, I had a lawyer who told me you have to do the road work. Get out of the bubble and travel. And so I went down to southeast San Diego a couple weeks ago where I was dazzled. Everyone talks about innovation and STEM, but talk is cheap and at the Elementary Institute of Science I met the real deal. EIS walks the walk and then some. The institute is located in the neighborhood known as the Lincoln cluster — a target-rich environment for changing lives.

Started in 1964 by Tom Watts, this organization now teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to over 2,300 less-advantaged students each year. After school, on weekends, in the summer, year-round, all in, EIS changes lives. Their core customers range from second grade to middle school. The program teaches hands-on engagement in life science, computer science, engineering, physics, environmental sciences and robotics. The students are equally boys and girls. The teachers are subject matter experts who are either finishing college or in a graduate program. They give their time and their passion.

Teacher Sam Litvin told me, “I was born in Ukraine and I love to uncover hidden talents.” Teacher Roxanne Tuong said, “I love teaching neuroscience.” Teacher Maryam Omar said, “My favorite experiment is to explore ABO blood typing.” These teachers are role models, and their theme to the students is that you too can do this.

What truly impressed me was the amazing team led by Patsy Tomlin, president. Of course, they have the problem of all nonprofits; they need more funding. But what made this adventure special for me was Tomlin’s goal of “giving the students a STEM identity.” I loved that. If you do not know what an engineer does, you cannot really imagine being one. So, to create the possibility for these students to imagine themselves in the world of STEM is significant and powerful and transformative. Here is a statistic that deadens the soul — fewer than 10 percent of the teachers in the elementary school system in San Diego have studied a STEM subject as part of their formal education. Whoa! Stop the madness. The next generation of jobs is going to be STEM, so if you have time or money or both, give them a call.

This my goody-two-shoes column, so my next shout-out is for my passionate belief in second chances.

That means please meet Andy Hall, chief operating officer of the San Diego Workforce Partnership. They have a big job fair coming up on Sept. 1. This is not just any job fair. This one seeks to bring companies to the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation on Euclid (near EIS) to meet young men and women who have changed their lives, who were “formerly incarcerated” and are now seeking a second chance.

While I was never in prison, I know a lot about second chances. I had some. So if we can get to the young people early at EIS, then great. If they slip through and end up in prison and then get out and are ready to re-engage with the world, then you need to welcome them to another chance. This forum is for businesses, so come out to meet your future employee. And here is another statistic that will rattle your cage — more than 4 percent of American workers will have spent time in a state or federal prison at some point in their lives. So when you look over at your co-worker, don’t ask, you may be very surprised.

Our city and county are filled with opportunities — with chances for you to engage with and be engaged by — to spend more than just an afternoon at the beach, but rather give time to what makes life fulfilling. I looked at the students at EIS and saw that they were connected and thrilled to be there. I have taught in the prisons and jails, and I have the letters (not always with perfect spelling) that say thank you for spending the time, for getting outside the bubble, for doing the roadwork.

Have a good rest of summer, and please take the time to look around you. There is no shortage of jobs to do and problems to solve. Don’t wait for the apple to fall on your head (Sir Isaac Newton); just reach up, grab it and take a big bite.

Rule No. 527:  Tomorrow is a second chance.

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