NAF Future Ready Lab gives Jennings students learning opportunities on UMSL campus

Michael Butler, director and web manager for the E. Desmond Lee Technology and Learning Center at the UMSL College of Education, leads a presentation for 19 Jennings High School students during the NAF Future Ready Lab summer internship program June 15 in the Boeing Room on South Campus. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jennings School District Superintendent Art McCoy wanted to make sure that the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education was a crucial part of the inaugural St. Louis NAF Future Ready Lab summer internship program from its earliest planning stages.

The NAF Future Ready Labs, in their second year of existence, give students at high schools that feature NAF “academy” coursework – like Jennings – the opportunity to serve monthlong paid summer internships with major corporations. The goal is to put STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education into practice in a real working environment and complete a project by the end of the internship.

The Jennings Future Ready Lab, presented by NAF in association with local sponsoring corporations World Wide Technology, Mastercard and KPMG, runs from June 4-29. At the end, the 19 interns will present on best practices in keeping data safe and maintaining a professional presence online.

McCoy, MEd 1999, PhD 2002, envisioned UMSL as a vital part of the internship experience as a place for his students to work on their project as well as gain exposure to a college campus.

“These individuals (at UMSL) are learning about the students’ grit, communication skills and character, and they’re giving them tips about scholarships and good college admission essays,” McCoy said. “It’s like a great freshman orientation or summer session course. UMSL was intentionally our anchor because of its commitment to underserved students and youth as well as its commitment to innovation. Part of our goal is to help with enrollment and students seeing UMSL as a flagship for emerging talent.”

The university has served as a home base for the interns throughout the program. The students have gotten the opportunity to work on their projects on campus, as well participating in campus tours and meeting with professors and admissions representatives.

The College of Education regularly partners with 15 St. Louis-area school districts, and the Future Ready Lab is one of many programs that bring local students to UMSL’s campus to interact with faculty and staff. Initiatives such as the UMSL Bridge Program serve as ways to lower barriers to understanding the college culture and admissions process for students who may be aspiring first-generation college attendees.

Jennings is serving as the pilot program in NAF’s St. Louis Future Ready Lab. McCoy says the goal is to add participants from nearby school districts in the coming years – a process in which the UMSL College of Education will be deeply involved with NAF and the corporate partners. These corporations, led by World Wide Technology, have a special interest in reaching out to underserved areas of the city and attracting untapped talent.

NAF, formerly known as the National Academy Foundation, started the Future Ready Lab program in Dallas; New York; and Eden Prairie, Minnesota; last summer before expanding this year to include six more internships and add Boston; Ontario, California; Sunnyvale, California; and St. Louis to its locations.

“The interns are getting exposure to the three companies in their cybersecurity components as well as their HR functions about personal branding, especially for applicants and employees,” said Brooke Rice, director of the Future Ready Labs for NAF. “They’re looking at how all of those systems work and then relating that to their own community to help their community build appropriate social media profiles, understanding the digital footprint as well as the cybersecurity component.”

Jennings has featured NAF career preparation-focused coursework in health sciences, information technology, finance, engineering, and hospitality and tourism for the past two years.

The interns were chosen through a rigorous process in which they had to submit their resumes, then go through a round of interviews with representatives from the school district and the three corporate sponsors. Part of what makes the Jennings interns so special, McCoy says, is their demographics.

All 19 of them are African-American. All but three of them are female.

“The IT departments that I’ve seen, it’s a heavy male presence,” McCoy said. “This is helping in that regard, to close the gender gap as well as add diversity in the areas of IT and business.”

Standing at the front of the Boeing Room on June 15, Michael Butler was about to show the group of Jennings students how one piece of code could erase an entire webpage.

Butler, director and web manager of the E. Desmond Lee Technology and Learning Center at the UMSL College of Education, had a page full of HTML code projected on a screen behind him, with the accompanying webpage output to its right.

“Now, watch what happens when I do this,” Butler said, then deleted a bracket and pressed “enter.”

The page went blank, accompanied by a soundtrack of “ohhhhhhhh” from the Jennings students.

“On big webpages, it could take us hours or a couple days to find the one missing bracket that’s messing it up,” Butler said. “That’s fun.”

Butler led a seminar on computer coding in HTML and CSS for the interns. Before the coding session, Butler shared his life story with the students. After struggling to make good choices through high school, Butler went back to college for computer science and became a web designer in the mid-1990s, the early days of the internet.

Not long after that, he co-founded a web consulting company and became a highly sought-after speaker at tech conferences.

“Every time someone told me what I could not do, I used it to show them what I could do,” Butler said.

TeShon Gardner took that message to heart. Gardner, a rising junior at Jennings, applied for the NAF internship because he wanted an opportunity to expand his skill base in technology and marketing.

He wants to go to college and earn a degree that will help him launch his own fashion brand.

“Just don’t give up. There’s a reason for everything,” Gardner said. “(Butler) didn’t give up, even though he got hit with a lot of bumps in the road. That never discouraged him. He kept pushing, moving forward, advancing.”

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