The Research Triangle Park

US2020 RTP hosts a Super Wow!

By Author Feb 04, 2016

Mentors and middle schoolers earn the WOW! and then some

You’ve got to be pretty confident to call your event a WOW!, let alone a SUPER WOW! But the Citizen Schools kids and teachers who put on the Super WOW! at The Frontier in Research Triangle Park on Jan. 19 had every reason to believe their work earned the title.

Citizen Schools is one of several organizations that US2020 partners with to provide science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) mentoring for kids in Wake and Durham schools. Citizen Schools is a national program with five North Carolina school locations — three in Durham and two in Charlotte — that offer extended-day learning programs for at-risk middle school kids. Students from the Durham schools — Lowe’s Grove, Githens, and Neal middle schools — hosted the Super WOW! event to showcase their work from the 10-week afterschool courses they participated in during the fall semester.

All in all, 13 groups presented projects at the Super WOW! event, though dozens more participated in WOW! events at their home schools earlier. Citizen Teachers included mentors from Cisco, Fidelity, EMC, Credit Suisse, Biogen, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, SAS, and Albert Schweitzer Fellows.

Now, getting middle schoolers to stay after school for more learning is a feat in itself. Here’s Citizen Schools’ secret: offer courses called “Secrets of a Millionaire” taught by financial experts from Fidelity, “Lego Robotics” taught by engineers from EMC, or “We Run This: Girls in Charge” taught by tech leaders from Cisco. All the courses were taught by Citizen Teachers — volunteers from the business community who spent 90 minutes each week working with students on projects ranging from testing bacteria growth in salsas to creating a line of clothing that disrupts gender stereotypes.

Along the way, students also learned critical career skills like how to communicate in a professional setting, how to work with a team, how to advocate for themselves, and how to make a compelling presentation.

“Learning comes in all shapes and sizes,” says Vanessa Benton, executive director of North Carolina Citizen Schools. “This is all about tapping into what’s deep within them, their natural curiosity. We’re providing an opportunity to light that spark for what their future can be.”

For students, the program is a chance to connect with professionals and explore subjects they might not otherwise be exposed to. Trinity, an 8th grader from Lowe’s Grove Middle School, says Citizen Schools gave her a chance to learn about financial planning.

“I thought it would help me with budgeting when I get older,” she says with her Citizen Teacher Clarke Egerton, a financial planner from Fidelity, standing by smiling proudly. In Egerton’s class, “Secrets of a Millionaire,” Trinity learned the components of financial planning, worked on a plan for a real client, and then presented the plan to the client.

“We took them on a field trip to Fidelity to meet with clients,” Egerton says. “We taught them the skills, and then they put it into practice. She really mastered this.”

“The clients didn’t always like what we had to say,” Trinity says. “Our client was all about clothes and entertainment. So we had to give her choices; if you don’t want to give that up, you can take from somewhere else. I could understand. I like clothes and shoes myself.”

Tai, a student at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, participated in “Project Double Dip” through Biogen’s Junior Scientists course. After explaining how he determined whether spinach dip, cheese dip, or salsa grew more bacteria (spinach dip did, just as predicted), he admitted he wasn’t really interested in a career in the lab. “My mom’s a biologist,” he says. “I want to be a computer engineer or a lawyer instead. But this taught me some good skills, like presentation skills. You need a good voice, and you need to make eye contact while you’re explaining something. My teachers were awesome.”

For as much as the students learn, though, Egerton says the Citizen Teachers are the real beneficiaries of the program. “If you are connected to this community and want the sort of satisfaction that you can’t get anywhere else, Citizen Schools is it hands down,” Egerton says. “You’re planting these seeds at the start of class, and when you see 10 weeks later that you have a plant with all this knowledge and confidence. . . well, I can’t talk about it without getting a little teary.” 

Indeed, many Citizen Teachers come back semester after semester, year after year. Dan Oldman has been teaching Lego Robotics at Neal Middle School for five years, even after he retired from his engineering job at EMC. It’s his way of paying back to society, he says as one of his students demonstrates the pair of Sumo-wrestling robots the group made. Using sensors to find each other and to stay inside the wrestling ring, the robots try to push each other off the mat. 

“These kids are capable of a lot,” Oldman says. “Of course, I was expecting them to be able to do it. I always have had a strong feeling that everyone can be successful if they work at it — and if they don’t get worried when one path doesn’t work. It’s like the robots; if you don’t like one thing, you back off and do something else.”  

“Our Cisco Citizen Teachers initially get involved for the students,” says Sandy Thompson, IT Site Executive at Cisco in RTP and a corporate partner for both Citizen Schools and US2020. “At the end of the 10-week semester they return with this sense of, ‘Wow, what a difference I can make.’  Wow! is a multi-dimensional experience — for students, teachers, employees and companies.”

Thompson also knows programs like Citizen Schools are critical to the future of the RTP and the region’s economy. “It’s very clear the jobs of the future are STEM jobs,” she says. “The challenge in our community is how to fill those jobs with local kids. If we don’t educate and create these opportunities the jobs go elsewhere. Someone helped us along the way. It’s our turn.”

US2020 RTP facilitates sustained, hands-on, high-impact mentorships for K-16 students in Durham and Wake counties. Through partnerships with Citizen Schools and similar organizations, US2020 connects mentors and students in a wide variety of learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom. More mentors are always needed. To become a Citizen Teacher or learn more about the Citizen Schools, visit To see the full list of mentorship opportunities facilitated through US2020, visit