Federal Focus, Inc.

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David Neils works for the International Telementor Center at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. He founded the HP E-mail Mentor Program in January, 1995. The program has served over 4,000 Telementor students since its inception. Students receive help from mentors in math, science, communication skills and career/education planning. David has a goal of expanding telementoring through the new International Telementoring Center to serve 10,000 students per year by the year 2003. So far, The Center has served students throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.

David first became interested in mentoring when, at the age of 6, he had a neighbor who worked with him as a mentor. The simple gift of encouragement David received from a mentor, made him realize that his own thoughts about the world had value. This same approach of genuine encouragement is the basic element of the Telementor Program that David now works with. The web site for the International Telementor Center is www.telementor.org.

Presentation I wanted to take advantage of a few extra minutes now to talk about a special project that we will be working on out in Silicon Valley with an organization called Joint Venture Silicon Valley. They recently did a study - it finished earlier this spring - called the Workforce Gap Study. Let me start by saying in our telementoring program we focus on serving fifth- through twelfth-grade students, and now university students, in the U.S., Canada, France, Australia, Italy, Singapore and Malaysia. Through this work in focusing math and science, we have also realized that there is a great need for career and education planning. That is how we became connected with Joint Ventures Silicon Valley.

After I went out, and they invited me to read the report, I found it amazing. Now, "workforce gap" - to what are we referring? We are talking about the gap between the supply of local talent to fill jobs, jobs that are open in Silicon Valley, and the demand. This gap between supply and demand is costing Silicon Valley area employers upwards of $4 billion per year. This is a big issue. So, it was decided that Joint Venture Silicon Valley would survey 1,700 eight-graders and eleventh-graders to find out what they knew about high technology and whether they understood the connection between what they were doing in school and being successful in high technology. Here are some of the numbers. I am glad you are sitting down because the numbers are scary.

The study projects that the are workforce shortage will increase to 200,000 positions by the year 2010 - that is the shortage - driven, in part, by a lack of interest among area high school students in high-tech careers. In preparing the report, Joint Venture and A. T. Kearney surveyed 1,700 Silicon Valley area eighth- and eleventh-grade students and found that only one-third indicated an interest in pursuing high-tech-related majors in college, and fewer still drew a connection between high-tech careers and associated skills. When asked what kinds of courses [were] relevant to high-tech, 75% responded, "Computers." Math was indicated by only 15%. Reading was indicated by only 7%.

If you dig into these numbers, you find that they asked, "Is doing well in Reading important to one's ability to do well in a high-tech career?" Only 7% responded, "Yes." Now, these are kids that live in Silicon Valley. What about kids in Fargo, North Dakota. They are completely out of the loop. And so, that is why I have a lot of interest and energy in helping students draft career and education plans beginning in the ninth grade. But, let me go back a little bit.

What we found on the surface - and we help students in math, science and career and education planning - let me tell you what is really happening in our program. This came about with teachers in San Josť and with teachers in Singapore that worked on specific projects to help students before the seventh grade make a paradigm shift regarding their view of education. What we find is that nearly every student, regardless of gender, academic ability, economic status, minority status, needs to go through the shift.

What is the shift? The shift is this: Learning how to use school as a resource to pursue interests that you have. Our only requirement in our program is that the interest is legal. We go from there. We also would like it to lead to some form of education and possibly a career beyond high school. Well, it is really easy to help kids make the shift before the seventh grade. We find it REALLY easy. It is very, very difficult to help students make the shift after the seventh grade.

Remember what it was like as we neared that milestone called "high school graduation"? Well meaning family members and friends came up and said, "David, Kevin, Carol, Brant, what are you going to do?" It was always asked in the context of "well, you must have an interest, you must have a plan. Tell us what it is." For many students, that is the first time that this light bulb goes off in their heads: Oh, now I am supposed to figure out what is going to happen after high school graduation. We do not want to wait that long, or we will continue to see the 40% drop-out rate in the freshman year in the colleges and universities. We cannot afford that. We will continue to see remedial programs such as those as Colorado State University, where educators are trying to bring kids up to eight-grade algebra levels so they can make it through their freshman year. I am tired of seeing these programs bursting at the seams.

So, what can we do differently? We can help students develop learning plans, and we will have a chance to test this out, not just in Silicon Valley, but also in a program in Topeka, Kansas. We can help kids develop learning plans for the current year based on their interests. I had third graders do this successfully in Fort Collins. They could articulate to other students, parents, teachers at the end of the year that this is the connection between space, or the Mars Pathfinder mission, and English, or math, or science, or history, or art, or PE (physical education), and the principal, and the janitor, and every teacher that I have, and every book that I am reading, and every computer that I am using. They could do it! And they have fun doing it. It was neat!

As I was saying to Tonya Wiley from National Mentoring Partnership, "Isn't it funny that there are many states, many school districts, many cities that when you mention the word "school-to-work", they don't want anything to do with it.." Why? Because they think it is vocational-technical, and that the kid will be changing tires after high school. They do not understand that it relates to any profession, any field, anywhere. But, as soon as they step out the door of high school, and let us say they enter college, what do we all talk about? Preparing for the workforce. So, there is this huge disconnect between what is happening in K-12. I feel that the last chance we have for most kids is pre-seventh grade. We have had over 4,000 students go through our program, and the results are consistent every fall and every spring. The attitude change that happens . . . I call them the pre-hormone years. Two things happen in seventh and eight grade: hormones and peer pressure. They really affect how students can perform. By reaching these students early, they have fun, they are excited.

I think that is really going to be the real focus of telementoring in our program. That is, helping these kids move into a proactive mode, from a neutral or reactive position, in which by the seventh or eight grade they are not only developing a learning plan based on what they want to learn, leveraging those resources at school, for the current year, but for the next year, too. So, now a student like Michelle can identify gaps - and this is another critical issue - in her education, resources, local resources at her school. Now she realizes, "You know, only about 15% or 20% of what I want to learn about the Mars Pathfinder mission is going to be learned at school. The other 80% or 85% is going to be learned outside of this school, and it is my responsibility to go out and find it." How many students have that attitude? They think 100% of their education happens in this building, and that is simply not the case. We know that as adults.

It is exciting to begin to work with Joint Venture Silicon Valley in helping these kids that are self-selected - that cannot be stressed enough - self-selected for high technology. They have a natural interest for this field. To begin to help them, we have had a number of students go through this already in our program, such that by the time that they graduate, they have a board of advisors set up in their field. Now how many of us had that? That board of advisers includes at least two alumni from the college or university they plan to attend. Well, when a kid walks on campus with a professional plan, and says, "This is what I want to accomplish here. Now, given your course structure, I am close, but I am not quite there. Can you help me design independent studies? I want to set up some win-win situations with these professionals." Then the professionals come to the university fighting over this kid to hire him for the next summer. This way the kid does not have to be mowing lawns, painting houses or washing dishes. He can actually do work in his field and be paid a lot more for it. We wonder . . . over the summer, how many college students across the nation are actually doing work in their fields? Very few, because they are not proactive.

I will end with this. The last time I was here, I presented at National Engineers Week. Before I began - and just think about these questions - I said, "I need to get a feel for my audience." We had 350 engineers there representing lots of different disciplines. "Can I see a show of hands. How many of you work for an organization right now where more than 50% of the people you work with are totally jazzed about the work they are doing?" And the room erupted in laughter, as though it were a joke. I was not laughing. "Anyone out there work in a place where 40% of the people you work with are excited?" No hands. "30%?" No hands. "20%" Two out of 350 hands went up. I said, "Look around the room and count. What does this mean? I'll cut you a break. Let us say that everyone in the room raised a hand at 20%. That means 80% of the people you are working with now are really not very excited. So, before I tell you anything about telementoring, can we all agree we do a horrible job in this country helping individuals pursue their interests successfully?" And I feel that is true. This really ties into mentoring, and trying to get mentors. The people that write out the checks to United Way, the people that access mentoring.org or telementor.org are people that have energy left over at the end of the day. But it is a small percentage of our workforce. They have energy left over for marriages, families, communities. The majority does not.

I will try to do two things. One is to try to tie some of what you have heard today together. The focus of my talk was to be this: What leads to success in telementoring? You have heard about some different programs today, and there are things I have learned about these programs over the years which continue to challenge me in terms of refinements we need to make to our own program. I will talk about those.

Let me begin by giving you a quick summary about what we are doing in Fort Collins. The International Telementor Center was born out of a program that I started in 1995 at Hewlett-Packard, the HP E-mail Mentor Program, working with originally 35 students at Cruise Elementary, third through sixth graders. After the word got out, it seemed that there was demand, and the program grew to 350 students, including students in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Germany. I was doing this on my own time, with no pay, with no support, just a green light. That was January of 1995. By Christmas time, things were starting to happen. Ann Foster, the teacher who works with me in South Carolina, had successfully marched around the state of South Carolina over that summer and took the example of four students that she had in the program. The technology then was a 286 machine and a 1200-baud modem. She said, "I want to expand the program and serve more students. This is what I need. Here is my plan. Now I need support." She won a $35,000 Christy MacAuliffe grant for her speaking tour around the state, all on her own, for her classroom. It was just amazing, and we are very lucky to have her on staff.

One of her students, who was in the eighth grade then, wrote me a letter. This was really what kicked off the funding of the program and the support. Johntina was her name. She was involved in some gang activity, and flunking every subject. In fact, Ann was surprised that she even showed up at school. Well, her mentor Mary helped her make a connection between an interest that she had - running her own jewelry business - now if it were someone in her family, and this really points out the importance of a mentor who is not part of the family structure, not part of the school structure, not part of the church structure, not a relative. Mary came along, a friend of mine in Fort Collins who was serving as the mentor, and asked the question, "What do you want to do after you graduate from high school?" Now, if that question would have been asked by a parent or a teacher, Johntina would have just laughed at him or her. "Well, I don't plan to graduate from high school," she would have said. But, she did not want to look like a fool to this stranger, so she said, "I want to own my own jewelry business." So then, that was the in. Mary started out by asking her lots of questions: What jewelry would you like to have? What would your inventory be? Who would your customers be? What would your shop look like? All these business-related questions. Then she asked, after it was obvious that Johntina was hooked - and this came from a message from Ann, the teacher - "Do you want to be successful in your jewelry business?" Well, that is a no-brainer. What is she going to say? No? She comes back and says, "Yes." Mary asks, "Do you know what it takes to be a successful business owner?" Johntina says, "No, I don't have a clue."

Mary says, "Let's talk about some of the basics that you will need. How are you doing in math?" Johntina: "I'm flunking." Mary: "OK. Let's bring it up to a C." It turns out that this girl was actually very bright. She knows how to work with kids. Between September and December, Johntina's math scores went from solid F to solid A. Right before I left for Christmas break, Johntina wrote me the following: "Dear David, is it OK if I send Al Gore an e-mail message about this program? I want every black girl that has grown up in a family like mine to have this opportunity. Bye, Johntina." Well, that is not an e-mail that I typically get. So, I contacted Mary to find out what was happening. Then I contacted Johntina and I asked her, "Tell me why are you doing so well in math." She said, "My mentor Mary has helped me to understand that it feels good to do well." I am thinking, "Man, this is not very difficult." So, I walked around the building several times, wondering whether I should be developing software and instead possibly doing this telementoring thing. When I return there is a phone call from Vic Suessmann at U.S. News and World Report: "Hey, I would like to learn more about your program." I thought, "Wow. Two calls in two days. This is fun." Then I was able to gather support for funding and was able to do this full time within HP.

The center is the International Telementor Center, not the Hewlett-Packard International Telementor Center. In fact, HP does not want to be noted as even the company that started this. They want other companies to join and receive the recognition for helping kids. HP simply wants to say, "This is a model that seems to be working, and now we want other companies to join." We quickly expanded to 1,500 students, and this year we will be up to 3,000 students. We focus on math and science, career and education planning, although we will help a student in any subject.

What is working? Let me step back a little bit and walk you through a scenario of what this looks like A to Z. The way that it works is that a teacher applies, and in the U.S. we accept about 20% to 25% of the applications we receive. This is because we expect a lot. We want to be sure that the project plan is solid, and that expectations are clear for both students and mentors. The mentor needs to be able to answer three questions at any point in time to feel successful and to stay in the program year after year:

Let us go back to the process. The teacher applies, and let us say he or she is successful. The teacher than submits this project plan. We look at it in terms of what we have seen work in the past. We want to make sure that all of these requirements are met. Once the teacher has applied successfully, then the students apply. It is a lot of fun to watch because the student application is now very short: Gender, hobbies and interests, program expectations and the name of your teacher. We get all of the contact information from the teacher.

The mentor pool is growing all the time. As soon as we receive at least one student application, then we have an open project and an unmatched student and all of the unmatched mentors are notified. The mentor may have indicated that he or she wants to work with a junior high student, and I would really prefer to work with a female student. Well, we let them all know what the opportunity is because we find that the mentor looks at the project. Let us say it is an astronomy project. Last year we had an employee at the Mountain View site of HP who used to work for NASA, and he thought, "Boy, I would really like to help these kids in Fairbanks work on this astronomy project." He had indicated in his application that he wanted to work with high school students. So, we let everyone know. Then, the mentors are competing with each other to match up with that student. So, guess what? As soon as we send out the message, it is just seconds before this student is matched up. Typically, as the mentors sign up, the time lag between when they apply and when they match themselves up is between six and seven minutes. Students have to wait on average no more than four or five hours.

The programs are successful because the accountability is high and because we have a checkpoint process every two weeks that we require all students and mentors to fill out - it is very simple, it takes about three or four minutes. The questions are these:

  • What are the projects you are working on?
  • What are some successes, if any, since the last time you have filled this out?
  • What are challenges you face?
  • If you need help, what help do you need and from whom do you need it? The teacher? The mentor? The student? Program staff? Somebody else?
  • Rank your experience right now in the program: 1 - Nothing is happening. There is no communication between me and my mentor (or student) to 5
- We are meeting the expectations of the program, of the project. We are meeting or exceeding our expectations. If it is a rank of 1, 2 or 3, the teacher gets all the messages and will see this in the e-mail subject line. The teacher has 48 hours to respond and fix the problem, otherwise we terminate the entire program at their school. Teachers are very quick to respond, therefore.

We also now require the teachers, at the beginning of the week, preferably Monday, Tuesday at the latest, to send out a message to all the mentors certainly, preferably the students as well. This message should let everyone know what is working and what is not working; it should also give tips from a teacher's perspective and ideas on how to work together. The mentors will do anything for teachers that do this.

The retention rate, as I mentioned earlier, from last year for the teachers was 100%. We had five teachers that could not participate because they did not have the technology at the school they moved to. The retention rate on the mentors from last year is 92%, which is basically 100% because people leave the company, etc. I think the only reason that is occurring is because the mentors are kept in the loop. Regardless of how well they are doing on the project at any point in time with the student, the teacher is letting them know, "Hey, you are having an impact." It is really neat to see this relationship build in this triad over time. Now we have to figure out a way for this cross-pollination to occur.

So, that is basically how it works. As was mentioned earlier today, we have policies for wrapping things up and for handling problems. Let us say the mentor goes on a business trip to Hong Kong, does not have e-mail access and forgets to tell his or her student that he or she will be gone for two weeks. We do not cut them any slack. If we get a message from the student saying, "What happened to my mentor?", and we check the voice mail and find that he or she is in Hong Kong, we immediately match that student up with a new mentor. We let the mentor know that this is the policy. You received this information up front. Sorry it did not work out. If you want to apply again next year, that is fine. Also, to increase the accountability for the mentors, they are graded by the teachers on the survey at the end of the year. And they know it. Now we are seeing much faster response time. When you have much faster response time, then things happen, it is a lot more productive and a lot more fun for everyone. It definitely takes more prodding in this virtual world because it is easy to walk away from a keyboard or a monitor. So, that is basically the process.

What are the main factors that I have seen lead to success?

  • Clear project plan with clear expectations. This is number one.
  • Realistic estimates of time commitment.

To bring these two worlds together, I wish I had a video that the mentors could see of perhaps 30 minutes of computer lab classroom situations that I have walked into. I remember one across the street from my house where the kids came into the lab, and they were hooting and hollering like maybe the Broncos won the Superbowl, but it was the fact that they could actually connect that day. It was an anomaly that they could connect to check their e-mail. Most of the time they had trouble. Well, at a company like HP, where you basically have a Club Med technology environment, and if it does not work you pick up the phone and call 1-800-IT and it is their job to fix it pronto. Well, the teacher does not have 1-800-IT. So, to let the mentors know what it is like out there is really important. We have a big handbook on how to handle lots of different situations.

Another thing that is important is that the students and mentors follow the plan that is laid out by the teacher. Now, that could be a specific plan about a specific topic, or ideally, the model that Kevin talked about, where it is more of a template into which they plug certain topics. That seems to be a lot more fun for the students because they can choose something. Then there is more collaboration that occurs and more sharing without cheating.

The factors that lead to success are so small. In our program, it is really four or five. We do our best to make refinements that will help people grab hold of those factors and have them become part of what they are doing.

The factors that lead to failure are the same four or five that we have seen since we have begun:

  • Number one is having expectations that were not in sync with the program.
  • Shifting sands at the school, where the teacher may have been promised the computer lab time, then suddenly the rug is pulled out from under him or her. Time goes by; mentors are not hearing from students; no one wants to confess that there is a problem. That is why we have this built-in check point process every two weeks, so we know and we can respond. People are starting to realize that the student and the mentor are always two ships passing in the night, to some degree, because of age different, environment difference, expectation differences. So, this checkpoint process brings them back into alignment as closely as possible with this automated procedure.

Now they are starting to appreciate it. Mentors who have been in the program for the second and third year are realizing, "Wow. This is really important because I have an expectation as a mentor that we will crank through this project plan." We are talking type A personalities for the most part that really want to see something happen and some accomplishment. But the student might simply be excited about learning how to use e-mail so that they can contact their friends all over the world. So, what we see happen is, let us say they are two weeks behind schedule and things are starting to get pretty fuzzy with the project. The mentor submits a checkpoint form and indicates a 3: "Hey, I think there are some problems and it does not seem like we will be able to solve them. We need some teacher intervention to help us get back on track." The student fills out the checkpoint form and indicates a 5: "Man, this is fun. We're just humming along. This is great." The teacher needs to look at that: 5 from the student and 3 from the mentor. The student's rating is typically higher than the mentor's. The teacher can look at these ratings, no one feels badly, it is not like the student or mentor is ratting on one another. We really push the fact that this is a way for you to have a lot more fun and be a lot more successful. That process, we found, is really important.

There are programs like The Electronic Emissary that provide that counseling and support on a daily and ongoing basis. I wish we could do that. I wish we could figure out a way to provide that sort of intervention and scale it up and keep the cost low. Those are all real issues.

Let me talk about some of the other challenges:

  • One-on-one e-mail. Although it is great and builds relationships, it does not allow for this cross-pollination to occur. It also excludes a lot of schools.
  • Another huge issue that I do not believe was brought up earlier today is supporting the same students year after year. In our model, we require a supervising teacher. Well, guess what? Kids grow up and move on to the next grade level. When they move from sixth grade to seventh grade they change schools, and if they have moved from a school that was rich in technology to one that is poor in technology, teachers might not be fired up to do this. In this situation, we have a student who "gets it," who understands the value of telementoring for himself or herself personally, and he or she is wondering, "How am I going to do this?" We have to figure out a way to serve that student.

There is a real issue of continuing to support students year after year. We have an opportunity in Topeka, Kansas, to do this for the next five years through the Gear Up program. A program called Pathways to Success at the University of Kansas is using our program as one of the solutions to help these students. This will be fun. We will work with these same students, sixth through most likely twelfth grade, providing telementoring year after year. What a pilot group to evaluate. We are really excited about that.

Another major issue is funding. This funding stream, whether from HP or the Packard Foundation or Merck, does not last ten years out. It only helps us get started. We have to figure out a model in which organizations like Joint Venture Silicon Valley approach several employers saying, "We'll help self-selected high school students interested in high tech develop career and education plans. We'll help make sure they have a board of advisors before they leave high school in the field of their choice. We'll create a pool of talent. Then because there is demand for the talent, (and I'm really excited about this pilot) the students can then post their portfolios online for review by employers who are interested. Whether the students are high school or college level, we will make an arrangement that the employer will send this child on for more education.

The employer will see an accurate representation of that person, which is far different than the current model. Under the current model, I go to a college campus, I interview Joe or Susie. Joe or Susie tries to buffalo me, to some degree, to get the job. That creates a win-lose situation, maybe a lose-lose. I would like to adopt a different model in which we create the pool of talent through self-selected students, we help them make the connection. Then, the demand side, the employer side gets to look at that pool for different areas of the economy. An employer might say, "Wow. I looked at Joe's portfolio. I would really like Joe to come work for HP." So, the employer contacts Joe. Now they are on even ground, right? Now there is not this power game between the interviewer and student. They both want a win-win situation. So, the employer describes, "Well, these are some of the opportunities we have available. Are you interested?" Then the student feels comfortable saying, "Well, that's close, but this is what I really would like to do. Let's work together to create an opportunity at your company, maybe a job that doesn't even exist." Can you imagine the difference in the retention and the loyalty and the productivity? I think that will be a different place. This workforce gap problem is a great place to test this out, and they seem to be interested. We have interest from Oracle, E-bay, Yahoo, HP, and World Bank. So, we will have a chance to test this idea. We hope, at a cost of $1.75 per student per week, we can come up with the money.

I think the main issues . . . all of these programs are really small potatoes when you look at the number of youth out there, millions, who could benefit from a mentor. We have to figure out some way to scale these things up. And that takes buy in. And that takes an organization like Federal Focus saying, "This is important."

I felt like we were making some ground when I had a chance to present this at the Department of Education, and one of the staff stood up and said, "We have to figure out a way in which all students have a crack at this relationship at least once." Then they will begin to understand that there are so many adults out there that are incredible resources. When you ask students, "Do you feel it is important to be able to pursue a dream successfully?", all hands go up. When I ask, "Do you know anyone who is pursuing a dream successfully?", sometimes one or two hands go up. When I ask, "What are the characteristics of people who are pursuing dreams successfully?", they do not have a clue. Well, it is really hard to create your own path to pursuing your own dream successfully if you have no idea how those that have done it did it. You have to begin sharing your interests, you have to begin connecting, you have to reach out and say, "I don't have a clue. I am interested. How do I do this?" Then, as we know, those of us who have been helping out in education, the resources just flood in. Students do that in a proactive way, to let them know this is very important.

I think the next step is to figure out a telementoring pilot that will wake people up in a very direct way.


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