Even before the term STEM was a commonplace acronym, the TGR Foundation, A Tiger Woods Charity began working with young children to expose them to careers they may never have dreamed of — maybe as a marine biologist, a forensic scientist, or even a dancer.
“Everything is STEM. Everything pretty much touches it in some way, shape or form,” explains Katherine Bihr, Vice President of Programs and Education for the nonprofit foundation. “Even though a dance class is very artistic, there’s STEM involved in the angles. Pointing out all those things to them makes young people better suited for their next steps.”
Since 2006, the TGR Learning Lab has been showing kids what kind of future is possible for them through its innovative hands-on program, a new online education portal and a college mentoring scholarship.
“We are so focused on STEM because we’re trying to create the worker of the future. We try to integrate a lot of different types of technology, everything from coding and robotics, to some virtual reality. We’re now dabbling in artificial intelligence, which I think is going to be interesting,” Bihr says.
Each day, dozens of fifth graders from schools in Southern California gather at the flagship TGR Learning Lab in Anaheim for a full week of exposure to one specific career, including understanding the role STEM skills play in that career. When I visited this fall, the kids were studying what it takes to be a forensic scientist. The classroom crime to be solved over the five days: the theft of a valuable ruby. These junior crime solvers were learning about real-world techniques, including fingerprinting, chromatography and DNA analysis.
In real life, forensic scientists analyze DNA samples through gel electrophoresis, a process in which an electric current is pushed through DNA from the crime scene and scientists measure the resulting strands to create a DNA-profile of potential suspects.
“This is kind of like the paper version of that. They use math in this one. They’re calculating the DNA pairs,” Bihr tells me. “Then in an online simulation, we show them how they would actually do it in a lab. We’re developing their skills throughout the week and on Friday they apply all the skills they have learned and try to solve the crime.”
“We tried to create something in which kids would just get excited about learning,” she explains. “We want them to really know that they can be successful in anything they choose, and they can be fearless about exploring different career fields. You can take something that you’re passionate about and actually make that a career opportunity for yourself.”
Bihr says learning this as fifth graders better prepares them for when they become high schoolers and start asking themselves, “What am I going to do when I graduate? Am I going to go to trade school? Or am I going to go to a community college? Or am I going to go to a four-year university?” The TGR Foundation’s goal is to create a better pathway to those answers. In addition to learning how different careers work and the skills that are attached, they learn where to get more information.
“They become much better consumers of information so that they know that ‘if I become an engineer I’m gonna make this much money, these are the top schools for me to go to, here’s specific field that I want to investigate more.’ So I think all of those things kind of help them really think about how they can leverage what they’re learning here,” explains Bihr.
A unique aspect of the TGR Learning Lab is that the students are not the only ones learning something new during the week. “We saw a real opportunity and need in the educational system, so we created TGR: EDU Create to respond to that. It helps teachers really learn how to develop standards-based and aligned activities that they can deliver in their classrooms,” according to Bihr.
“We’re part of a consortia of other funders in STEM that works around the nation to develop STEM learning ecosystems where communities are taking an approach at looking at what does STEM learning look like for schools, or for kids in K-12 by bringing in business leaders, informal learning centers like science centers, and schools themselves and trying to put all those pieces together so that we’re all working towards educating kids on the importance of STEM and STEM learning,” Bihr says.
The TGR Foundation recently launched a digital platform to help share the Learning Lab experience with students, educators, and families that can’t attend the program in Anaheim or at one of the five satellite sites around the country. TGR EDU: Explore features STEM-related modules, including lesson plans, webinars and even a virtual field trip.
The content has “been scaled and digitized to reach millions of underserved students around the world,” according to the charity. Bihr believes “the more we can communicate with one another, the better off we are, and the richer the experience is going to be. And I think it closes that gap faster if we can all just be on the same page.”
All of the Foundation programs were born out of Tiger Woods’ desire to create a “permanent, safe place for young people to explore their dreams”. Woods started his foundation in 1996, but, as he tells it, it wasn’t until the tragedy of 9/11 that he figured out how to accomplish his goal. Because all air travel was grounded after the terrorist attacks, he had to drive from St. Louis to his home in Florida. It gave him time to think about the importance of really educating kids about who they can be and what they can become. He challenged his staff to make what he calls “bold choices” and they came up of the Learning Lab and the Earl Woods Scholar Program, named after his late father.
“We’ve been pioneers in positive youth development, building resilience and developing self-advocacy skills in young people. Research now confirms that these are powerful indicators for long-term student success,” Woods wrote in a recent letter to TGR Foundation supporters. “We have one of the highest college graduations rates among scholarship programs in the U.S..”
Ruben Triscareno first came to the TGR Learning Lab as a seventh grader. In the 11th grade, he became an Earl Woods scholar. Students who are invited into the one-on-one mentoring program are helped through the process of applying to colleges and filling out financial aid applications. Since its creation, the program has helped more than 160 students attend the nation’s top colleges and universities. Triscareno is now a junior at the University of California-Irvine.
“I would say I was nervous and afraid about going to college just because I was first-generation. My parents were undocumented and didn’t really know anything about the college application process. I was really lost,” says Triscareno. “The program provided me with FAFSA nights, mock interviews, the common app, mentors, just an abundant amount of resources to help me get to where I am right now,” he adds. “I’m currently majoring in public health policy, possibly trying to double major in criminology because my parents might possibly be up for deportation.”
“I’ve always tried to do things by myself. One of those things that was hard for me to accept in college was that it’s okay to ask for help for tutoring, for advice from mentors. That was really a big step forward for me,” says Triscareno. “A big ‘thank you’ to the Foundation for helping me understand that if you can’t do something by yourself it doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It doesn’t mean that you’re not capable. It just means that you need a little bit of help.”
Triscareno is also trying to pay it forward, helping kids like himself at his old high school, Century High in Santa Ana. “If a student is interested in UC Irvine I can help them now through the application process, what they are looking for, what are the average GPAs, the average SATs. I don’t have any younger siblings to help but I do try to instill my knowledge to those who need it.”
Woods is obviously proud of what his TGR Foundation has achieved. “Our purpose is to equip kids with a solid education and the mindset to persevere,” Woods wrote. “We are quietly impacting an entire generation for the better.”
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