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Partnership Between ODU and Norfolk Public Schools Provides Mentors to Students in STEM and Cybersecurity

By Jonah Grinkewitz

Karissa Crawford knows the impact a dedicated mentor can have on a student.

She participated in the Girls in Engineering (now called Girls in STEM) program at Granby High School from 2017 to 2021.

"I have so many fond memories of my time on the team," she said. "Without the guidance of so many dedicated Norfolk Public School and Old Dominion University representatives, we certainly would not have been able to accomplish the goals we strived toward."

Now, as a civil engineering technology major at ODU, Crawford is paying it forward as a mentor for the same program that helped prepare her for college.

"A lot of their questions and ambitions align with exactly what I was searching for when I was their age, and it is such an honor to assist them on their personal journeys," she said. "I like to believe that I am living proof that with determination and a positive attitude, pursuing success as a woman in the world of STEM is absolutely within reach."

Since 2012, ODU's Batten College of Engineering has partnered with Norfolk Public Schools to provide mentors for students in the Girls in STEM and CyberPatriot programs.

While Girls in STEM is available only at Granby High School, the CyberPatriot program is a national competition created by the Air Force Association that is open to all NPS students.

Vukica Jovanović, chair of the Engineering Technology Department, works closely with Deborah Marshall, Career and Technical Education Teacher Specialist at NPS, to identify engineering students to serve as mentors.

For ODU students, the mentorship is a paid undergraduate research assistantship funded through various grants (starting in 2013 with a grant funded by Opportunity Inc., then the Office of Naval Research - Higher Education Pathways for Maritime Mechatronics Technicians, and now through the U.S. Department of Education - Computer Science and Cybersecurity Pathway for Career and Technical Education).

Aside from the research and service-learning experience, Jovanović said the mentorships "help engineering students grow their engineering identity," which builds their confidence to apply for jobs after college.

Jeff Larson continued serving as a mentor for the Girls in STEM program after graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology from ODU in 2018.

Prior to the pandemic, he organized a field trip for students to visit the Lipton Tea Plant in Suffolk where he worked.

"I found it to be very rewarding working with students that wanted to learn more than just what was being taught in the classroom," he said. "It was simply fantastic to help and watch these brilliant young women learn and master skills, from programming, shop safety, Microsoft office products and public speaking."

Drew Brown is pursuing an M.S. in cybersecurity at ODU through the Cyber LeADERS Scholars Program and works as a graduate research assistant at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC).

He is heading into his second year as a mentor in the CyberPatriot competition program.

"The CyberPatriot program was a unique experience in that most of the team did not have any system administration experience beyond basic device interactions such as games and various schoolwork inside of Chromebooks," he said. "This enabled the students to see a bit of the behind the scenes of computers to grasp a better understanding of what makes them operate."

Last year, two teams from Norfolk (Lake Taylor and Maury) went to the state finals and one (Maury) went to the national semifinals.

Marshall said both programs - and the mentorships - are serving students from underrepresented groups.

"It grows their confidence and motivates them," she said. "No matter which zip code you live in in Norfolk, you have this opportunity."

Jovanović said one of the main goals organizers had when they started the partnership in 2012 was to increase the participation of female students in computer science and cybersecurity CTE courses.

That goal is being met.

The number of female students who participate in AP Computer Science Principles and CTE cybersecurity courses IT Fundamentals, Cybersecurity Fundamentals and Cybersecurity Operations offered in all five Norfolk Public Schools rose from 79 female students in 2020 to 151 students in 2022.

In addition, every girl who has participated in the Girls in STEM program has gone on to college.

More than a decade into the partnership, Marshall said everyone involved benefits.

"If you have a job in the field you love, Norfolk wins, ODU wins, and most importantly, the student wins."

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