Sunday, June 11, 2017

If we could improve the volunteer experience with the Engineer-in-Residence program --a personal recount

A successful program that has been running for years, Engineer In Residence, EIR, program was established to help "bridge the gap" that often exists between "real world and classroom theory".
The program places P.Eng and EITs in elementary and high schools across the province of Ontario. The volunteer EIR "brings real-life dimension to the curriculum, using hands on projects. presentations and other activities."

As a licensed engineer, when I received the "Call for Volunteers" email from PEO in April of 2016, the email text was similar to what I quoted, above, from the "About" page of Engineer-in-Residence program web site, I clicked on the embedded link and applied.

Although there's a lot of positive that goes with volunteering in general, and this volunteer program specifically (based on past participant anecdotes published on the web), I started with a low expectation.  I anticipated slow response to emails, lack of well defined process, and to summarize a program that relies on volunteers to be self-starters with limited, or no assistance.  Even with this assumption, I found myself at times confused, at best, and frustrated, at worst, with the way this program was run and issues were handled.  Below, I state three events that made me feel this way.  Since I want to be as objective as I can in my recount, in each scenario I state my expectation first and then describe my experience.

Notification of change:
My expectation:
A coordinator plays a key role, someone whose job's definition is to ensure an effective interface between the program participants and the program.  One would expect this role to be always filled, and in the event of a change, it would be broadcast to those who are sitting patiently on the other end of the communication waiting for the transition out of the old, and transition in of the new to complete.
My Experience:
After a month of working with a program coordinator, and close to a month of no communication, a broadcast email arrived from a new email.   The email didn't  say anything whether there has been a permanent change over, or whether this new person is stepping in for a bit.  I had a conversation thread going with the then coordinator, trying to set up a date to get the Police Check process started.  After a month long wait, the broadcast email from the new person, and its call-to-action was all that I received. It was confusing, but not something that breaks the camel's back.

Appointments and last minute change of plans:
My Expectation:
When one sets a meeting date a month in advance, the most probable outcome one expects is the meeting happens as planned.  But, there's a chance that something happens that inhibits one party to keep her/his promise.  So, the logical course of action is to reach out to the other person, and ensure the appointment is canceled and/or rescheduled.
My Experience:
I arrived in the office, after an hour long commute, only to find out the person I am meeting with is not there.  I checked the email to see if I had the day and/or time right, there I found a fresh email from the person I was meeting, at 10:30 am the same day saying, " something has come up and I am no longer available today."  I felt very frustrated. The email ended with "Sorry for the late notice,"  This didn't make me feel any better.  However, I thought, these are administrative mishaps, and qualify as minor impediments to a year long,  great experience of interacting with young, curious minds who are ready to be interested and engaged in engineering experiments.

Provide support when things are not going as planned:
My expectation:
When things are not going the way they are supposed to, I expect the experts to guide and/or course correct, the very least touch base with both the teacher and the volunteer.  Especially, if they are kept in the loop, by way of being cc'd on the email, and asked directly.
My Experience:
There was a day long training, in which participation for EIRs and Teachers were voluntary.  During this full day session however,  the participants were given an introduction to the program and tutorial on the format of it.  I learned at this session that Teachers and EIRs meet in the start of the school year, and collaborate on putting together the content to be presented to the class, they'd also come up with a mutual convenient schedule for the EIR to meet with the class.  When the feedback request email arrived end of November, I still had not had a face to face with the Teacher and not been to a classroom.  I had a series of missed call appointments, and infrequent email replies from the teacher to show for, with no concrete plan for future.  I could relate to the teacher having a busy start of the year.  But, I think by November we should have had the very least one face to face.  I wrote the EIR support team, consulted them on how I should proceed.  I received reply from one of the EIR Support Team members saying, keep emailing until you get through.  And that's the level of support I received in my first experience with the EIR program.  I was honestly thinking of giving up half way through.  But, then I thought where would that leave the kids.  In the spirit of making a difference, I kept at it.

We are counting down to the end of 2016-2017 school year.  I have not met the kids at the school I was assigned to even once.  But, I have met with the two teachers working together on this, twice, and have exchanged many emails with them.  These teachers are running numerous science projects for their kids, something I commend.  I don't know if much thought was given on how does running an EIR program for a full academic year fits the existing schedule. I think it was perceived as doable to accommodate alongside other running projects.  In any case, although I was not able to launch the EIR program as explained in the one day training, I was able to offer my services as a practicing Software Developer to one of the science projects these two teachers were running for their kids.  I developed for them four Salmon Ecosystem software projects/games to complement, and reinforce the learning of the science project the teachers are running for the kids this year.  The games simulate good, and bad ecosystems and follow their impact on salmons' survival. Although the games are written and ready to be deployed, the teachers have not had a chance to run through them with the kids.  There has been a lot of gaps and delays in our email communication. These delays has hindered the project progress.

This is my personal experience with the way Engineer-in-Residence program was run this year.   I am not returning to the program next year.  I think the program markets itself very well, but it lacks the characteristic of a well-run, organized program.
I am sharing this in an open forum, because I hope coordinators and participants of Engineer-in-Residence program and other similar programs can share their experience here when they come across it. 

1 comment:

Vanessa Raponi said...

Hello Visda,

My name is Vanessa Raponi - and I was the Professional Programs Coordinator last summer (May 2016-May 2017), and have been rehired for this summer (May 2017-May 2018).

I'd like to begin with a sincere apology.

Last summer, I nearly doubled the size of the EIR program from 97 pairs to 189 pairs. This means there was 378 people actively participating Province-wide in the program. I was responsible for (1) interviewing potential applicants, (2) geographically matching each pair (while factoring in special circumstances and considerations), (3) coordinating over 100 in-person Police Check meetings, (4) hosting monthly training webinars, (5) generally setting up each pair for success by answering individual questions as they came.

This was a lot of work for a one to three person team!

I am heartbroken that you managed to slip through the cracks, and that as a result, all of our hard work came across to you as an unorganized and ineffective program. This is not our goal, this is not our desire, and this is not our norm. The vast majority of our 189 pairs were able to successfully enter the classroom multiple times per year, and undoubtedly have directly contributed to the future of the engineering profession.

We will take your feedback to heart, and continue to work hard to ensure every individual in our program has their needs attended to. If you would like to call and discuss further - I am available at 647-606-3492.

All the best in your future endeavours,
Vanessa Raponi
Professional Programs Coordinator | Engineer in Residence Program