“What gives you spirit at school? What kills your spirit at school? What do you do on Sunday afternoon? What keeps you up at night?”
These were just a few of the questions that 20 middle school students asked themselves and community innovators during the San Antonio Youth Leadership Program, a joint effort by the Alamo Asian American Chamber of Commerce and Communities in Schools held earlier this month.
The program brought together students from all around San Antonio to challenge them to see how their vision is shaped by the power of their questions. I was one of the program organizers, along with Aparna Vohra and Eli Embleton from the Educational Foundation, and Natasha Wilkerson from Communities In Schools of San Antonio.
This was the fifth year we held our innovative youth leadership program. Modeled after Leadership San Antonio, the program convened five students from Terrell Wells Middle School and Kingsborough Middle School, schools that have Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives on their campuses. The remaining 10 students came from BASIS, a high-performing STEM charter school ranked highly by Newsweek HighSchool and the Washington Post.
Asking the right question reveals the astonishing possibilities that lie hidden when we focus instead on finding answers. Imagine the revolutionary learning environment that would take place in the classroom if there was an open conversational reality between students and teachers. Imagine if learning were no longer a one-way lecture, but took on a more inclusive exploration into creative methods of inquiry.
The goal of the program is to expose the students to various STEM- and arts-related career options and give them the opportunity to interact with key community leaders. This year’s participants got a close look at the day-to-day life of politicians, engineers, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and those in other trailblazing careers.
The program kicked off at Trinity University‘s Center for the Sciences and Innovation building. Embleton, poet and former CEO of For the Kids Dance Marathon, provided the framework for the program and asked the students what it means to be a youth leader. He brought up a classic interpretation of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and asked the students to explore the question: “How would my life be different if I walked an unknown path?” Embleton introduced the concepts of courage, spirit, and storytelling, too.
In the afternoon, students learned about aerospace engineering and built rockets that were launched on the last day of the program. They visited various physics, chemistry, and biology labs and interacted with Trinity University students and faculty.
Tuesday, the students took to City Hall to meet with City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8). This was the third group of students that had the opportunity to meet with Nirenberg, who held a town hall-style meeting with them. The councilman told the students that the work City Council does is very important for future generations.
When a student asked him, “What do you want San Antonio to look like in the future?” he replied, “A global city where people from different cultures and backgrounds work cohesively to raise their families.”
Nirenberg encouraged students to get involved in various community service projects including SA2020, urged them to attend college, and encouraged them to tell their parents that decisions made at the City level affect the lives of Bexar County residents more than decisions made at the state and federal level.
After meeting with the councilman, the students took a short walk over to Geekdom, a collaborative co-working space where entrepreneurs, technologists, developers, and other creatives build businesses and other cool stuff together. The students got a tour of the facility and learned that if they ever had an idea and wanted to start a company, they have local resources in San Antonio to help them convert their dreams into actual products.
In the afternoon, the students had an opportunity to meet with Dr. Alexander Pertsemlidis, associate professor of pediatrics, hematology, and oncology at the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Dr. Pertsemlidis is paving the way for new cancer treatments for patients and survivors with cutting-edge research. The students visited the lab to get a close-up look at cancer research and the work of a scientist.
Wednesday began with a visit to the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) Dos Rios water recycling center and laboratory. The students learned what happens to waste water and the different testing procedures used by SAWS to ensure that recycled water is safe for consumption. SAWS staff provided great insight into the importance of water conservation and highlighted different career opportunities for students with backgrounds in chemistry and biology.
In the afternoon, participants volunteered at the San Antonio Food Bank. They interacted with Eric Cooper, San Antonio Food Bank CEO, who shared his personal story of why he does what he does.
Thursday’s agenda led the students to the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), where they learned about robotic engineering and the research and development of industrial robots used in manufacturing. The students learned about some of the work SWRI is doing for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and about space exploration, and visited various tooling and testing labs. In the afternoon, they visited a Toyota manufacturing plant to see how robots are used in the assembly of Toyota’s trucks.
Friday, the adventure continued as the students got into scrubs to experience a staged robotic surgery at North Central Baptist Hospital. The students got an opportunity to operate the daVinci robot, a $2 million machine used for surgery. Robotic surgeries are minimally invasive and result in minimal scarring and pain due to smaller incision sites.
The students then met with Dr. Bala “Vish” Vishwanathan, an accomplished surgeon with more than 20 years of experience, and asked him about his profession.
On Friday afternoon, the students met with Dr. Bhounsule and Dr. Wilkerson in the University of Texas at San Antonio mechanical engineering department. During the tour, the students learned about graduate research in robotics, 3D printing, and programming. Then, they visited Vizlab and explored virtual reality and various virtualization tools. They were enthralled by the experience and had quite a few questions for the tour guides.
The week ended on Saturday morning with a fireside-chat dialogue at Terrell Wells Middle School. The students shared their adventures and the knowledge they gained from their experience with their amazed parents, and launched the rockets that they had built on Monday during their visit to Trinity University. It was a beautiful ending to an action-packed week.
Over the last five years, more than 120 students have participated in the San Antonio Youth Leadership Program. Each student has walked away with information and experiences that gave them a fresh perspective of what they deem possible for their futures.
Some have had their eyes opened to possibilities they had never thought of before.
Top image: Students created rockets during the leadership program. Photo Courtesy of the San Antonio Youth Leadership Program.