What I learned from mentoring a 13 year-old middle school student and from a toy solar-powered car
By Oscar E. Padilla
Oscar is a mentor in Los Angeles and was paired with Jesus for the fall semester. As Senior Vice President of Marketing, Oscar leads all aspects of sales marketing for PULPO, Entravision’s fast growing digital media business unit. Here, Oscar shares some key learnings from his first youth mentoring experience.
I first learned about the Spark program in 2015 when I saw my Chief Marketing Officer walking around our offices every Thursday with a middle school kid. I later learned that our company was a corporate partner for this program, which focuses on matching working professionals with 7th and 8th graders in underserved communities, to undertake a mentoring role for 10 weeks.
At the core of the Spark mentorship program is a unique project or initiative you participate in with your student for the duration of the roughly two-month time period. The initial student/mentor matching process helps narrow down what your project will focus on. It took a little longer for my student and I to narrow down our project. After several brainstorming sessions, we selected a solar energy initiative. Because of this student’s love for cars, we found our “aha” moment in the form of a solar-powered car.
Getting our car off the ground from “concept” to “production-ready” was a true team effort. This team included my student and my colleague and co-mentor, Jessica Rivera Escobar. Before designing the car, we felt it would be necessary to gain an understanding of solar energy: its benefits, uses, and important facts about this energy source. My student was exposed to some rigorous research efforts, which he did on his own. Then came the blueprint planning stage and the fun in figuring out how we would build it. We did research for every component needed; car body parts, solar panels, electric motor options, and we learned how to put it all together. We also wanted to build a strong brand as part of our project.
Building the car was pretty straightforward since we had done the needed research and
had gathered all the parts and tools required to assemble the car. We encountered some “engineering” challenges (see below), but overall we successfully achieved our goal in building a functional toy car in time for our big presentation.
The big day was December 8, 2016, and we presented our project at the Bethune Middle School in Los Angeles alongside dozens of other Spark students and mentors. The place was packed with students, teachers, other mentors and parents. My student did exceptionally well. He prepared a poster to explain the benefits of solar energy and how he was inspired to build the car. Although he was a little nervous at the beginning of his presentation, by the sixth presentation he was a total pro—confident, eloquent, and speaking knowledgeably on all aspects of his project. It was an extremely satisfying and proud moment to see how my student made noticeable progress, transforming from a shy and quiet student to a more assertive and self-reliant one in just a few weeks. That is precisely what the Spark program is all about.
Below are five important lessons I learned from the Spark mentoring program:
- Great ideas come organically. We had a number of ideas we contemplated for this project, but the inspiration for the solar car came to our student from a light art piece sitting on my desk. While I was busy researching options and overthinking what we could do, our student was observing the surrounding environment to come up with an idea for a project that was simple to execute but at the same time would stand out as unique and engaging.
- Letting go of control goes a long way. While I was trying to follow the program to the letter and comply with a more rigid structure, I quickly learned this was not going to be the best approach. My co-worker, Jessica, took a more conversational and natural tone with our student, and it helped him open up and interact with us in a positive way.
- Now matter how well you plan, you’re going to have setbacks. It was fortunate that our car didn’t actually make it into a full market production. Once we had fully assembled the car, we found two significant flaws. First, our car only traveled in reverse! This was easily fixed, but the bigger problem was that our car was too heavy to move due to the low voltage engine and solar power system we assembled. As I explained to our student, we took a proof-of-concept approach in which future iterations would allow for perfection. This rapid development approach provided a solid understanding of the basics of this technology and the value of solar power.
- Don’t underestimate what you can learn from a 13 year-old. It became apparent in working with my student that this process was a two-way learning experience. In working together, I felt he was influencing me as much or more as I was influencing him as the weeks went by. He had an innate curiosity that was contagious, and his comments and observations continually helped to further advance our project. At the end of the program, I was truly looking forward to talking more about my experience in working with him and bragging about our project.
- Project-based mentoring is extremely powerful. Spark is unique from other mentoring programs in both its approach and in the age group of the students. Spark focuses on working with 7th and 8th graders that are at an exceedingly susceptible age for learning. The program places students in control of projects that they see through to fruition. The project approach exposes students to many different facets of real life experiences such as planning an event, building a model, creating a business plan or creating a new technology. All of these initiatives have one thing in common: the opportunity to learn by doing.
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