Afterschool programs across the country are working with students to prepare them for future jobs. Of programs focusing on high school students, we see students getting real-world job experiences in afterschool, including paid internships, professional development training, practice building skills they will need in the workforce, and exposure to colleges and possible future career pathways. One of the programs highlighted in our latest issue brief, Building Workforce Skills in Afterschool, Evoking Learning and Understanding Through Investigations in the Natural Sciences (EVOLUTIONS) does all of this and more with their students. While talking with the program’s manager of public and youth engagement, Andrea Motto, we were impressed not only with what EVOLUTIONS does with its students, but how.
EVOLUTIONS is located in New Haven, Conn., and is a part of Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. The program was created in 2005 in response to community focus groups identifying that the museum could do a better job engaging with the local community. As part of these focus groups, the community expressed that they did not view the museum as a resource that was accessible to them. Listening to these community concerns, EVOLUTIONS was born. By starting with youth, the museum could invest in bridging the gap, bringing youth into the museum in an attempt to increase community access.
EVOLUTIONS provides programming to 120 high school students and focuses their recruitment on students from low-income families. At the beginning of each year program staff visit nearly every 9th and 10th grade classroom in New and West Haven to ensure they have a broad reach in the communities they serve.
The program exists in many forms, with a bi-weekly afterschool class and museum interpretation internships being EVOLUTIONS’ main programs. After participating in the program for a year, students have the opportunity to apply to Sci.CORPS (the Science Career Orientation and Readiness Program for Students), a paid internship opportunity within the program, or paid internships working with Yale professors over the summer.
While science education is a central part of all of the EVOLUTIONS programming, students also receive exposure to new careers and professional development training. Each week, students discuss a new STEM field and practice transferrable job skills like public speaking and group work. Students also participate in mock job interviews with museum staff to gain confidence and feel at ease in a formal interview setting.
Motto explained that providing her students with job opportunities and professional development training is important because Sci.CORPS or EVOLUTIONS internships are often the first job experience for her students. Throughout the program, EVOLUTIONS provides opportunities for students to learn and understand workplace etiquette that may not be intuitive to all students, such as what to wear for a job interview or how to communicate with a supervisor about being late for work.
Diversity is a central theme throughout all of the EVOLUTIONS programming, providing a safe space for students to explore and foster their identities. Motto shared with us that a goal of EVOLUTIONS is to provide a safe and supportive first work environment for her students to begin to establish their identities in relation to their pursuits for the future. Part of EVOLUTIONS’ best practices to support their students in this mission is employing staff that are representative of the students that they work with. Given that the majority of the Yale student population come from different backgrounds than most EVOLUTIONS participants, it is extremely important to Motto to hire program staff and college mentors with diverse backgrounds. Having facilitators that are close in age and reflective of the students participating in the program helps students see themselves in these positions and roles in the future, and shows them possible pathways for their futures in the workplace or college.
Central to EVOLUTIONS’ mission is preparing students for and exposing students to college. In addition to the more traditional college preparation supports, such as SAT preparation and college visits, EVOLUTIONS ties their college preparation back to their missions of diversity and inclusion. “New Haven is an incredibly diverse district, so race and culture is something that we always talk about. We have students who grew up in this place where it just has a very different vibe than a predominantly white college that they will probably go to.”
It is also important to EVOLUTIONS to have these conversations with their students’ parents. The program continuously works to include parents in the conversation about college and facilitates discussions as early as 9th grade between students and parents about finances and college.
For students living in New Haven, Conn. proximity to a major university with a breadth of incredible opportunities in terms of colleges, careers, and resources does not necessarily mean access. Large and prestigious institutions can feel far removed and inaccessible to low-income families, despite geographic proximity, based on previous experiences of feeling or being told they are not welcome in those spaces. The EVOLUTIONS program, however, implements concrete and successful practices to bridge those existing gaps by bringing students into the museum space and allowing them to claim part of the campus as their own. It also exposes students to possibilities for their futures in terms of college and potential careers, as well as helping students gain the tools they need for anything they choose to pursue, with an emphasis on preparation for college, and professional environments.