The Silicon Valley is known as the world epicenter of the tech industry. Yet, when the San Francisco 49ers relocated to Santa Clara to begin playing at Levi’s Stadium, the team was surprised to learn that a mere three-percent of high school students in the Santa Clara school system passed the AP Calculus examination.
Since its founding in 1991, the 49ers Foundation has been committed to providing opportunities to children in underserved communities to help keep them, “safe, on track and in school.” Recognizing the likely cause of low AP Calculus test score results as a gap in STEM education opportunities, the 49ers shifted their educational strategy to address this issue upon moving to Santa Clara.
To do this, the 49ers launched two science and math-based educational initiatives targeted toward Santa Clara area children: The 49ers STEAM Education Program and the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute. Through these endeavors, the team reaches over 60,000 children per year with both high-level and intensive STEM and STEAM education opportunities.
Building Levi’s Stadium provided the 49ers with a unique opportunity to reimagine what STEAM education could look like. Constructing a 20,000 square foot museum space within the stadium, the 49ers carved out specialized classroom and teaching areas to provide opportunities for children in Kindergarten through 8th grade to learn about the science and math behind football.
“In building Levi’s Stadium, the York family wanted to create impactful community programming centered around education. The museum began as a conduit for an education program. What we envisioned at that point was a program that would bring children to the stadium and use football and the stadium as platforms to get kids to engage with and be more interested in STEAM subjects,” said Jesse Lovejoy, the 49ers’ director of STEAM education and director of the 49ers Museum.
Through the 49ers STEAM Education Program, students from Kindergarten through 8th grade travel to the 49ers Museum at Levi’s Stadium to engage in project-based STEAM learning. Students not only travel through the museum, but enter into specially designed, highly technological classrooms where they engage with 49ers instructors on STEAM topics related to football. The curriculum provided by the 49ers educational staff is customized to the students’ grade and their teachers’ overarching in-class coursework. Students attend the field trip completely free of charge, with the 49ers not charging an admission fee and even paying for transportation to Levi’s Stadium.
“When you see how kids engage with the content, you can see why the 49ers’ investment matters. In order to have students entering college, post-high school vocational training and the workforce prepared and hungry to pursue STEAM careers, you have to light a fire inside of them. You must show them these things are relevant. Sometimes you have to do that using a vehicle that they understand, but don’t necessarily appreciate, as being a conduit for those things. Football is exactly that,” Lovejoy explained.
What began as a plan to serve 20,000 children annually with high-level STEAM education lessons quickly became much bigger and more impactful than expected.
“We launched the program in 2014 and the original plan was to serve 20,000 kids in the first year. We were able to host over 30,000 kids in the first year, after turning 15,000 away because of logistics, and saw we had an incredible way to engage kids around STEAM,” Lovejoy noted.
Seeing the breadth by which the team could impact Santa Clara area children through STEAM education, Lovejoy Jed York, owner of the 49ers, to do something unprecedented: Re-open construction on a stadium that was opened just a year before.
“I went to ownership and told them I thought we had something we needed to grow. I told them I wanted to build another classroom. The conversation lasted five-minutes and the York family said that they’re committed to growing this and if building was needed to grow it, they would do it. Not only that, but they told me to make sure what we built was the best and most engaging thing out there in STEAM education,” Lovejoy recalled.
For the 49ers’ ownership group, the bold investment in education has paid dividends.
“Both my parents and [co-chairman] Denise’s parents felt that education was the way to lift yourself up. In being able to do that and learning how to learn, you could teach yourself anything. If you give students the confidence that they can learn anything, they become confident individuals who accomplish more,” 49ers co-chairman, Dr. John York, said.
Holding this commitment to education, the York family also launched the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute in partnership with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, Santa Clara Unified School District and Chevron. The six-year program provides selected students at Santa Clara’s Cabrillo Middle School and Santa Clara High School access to an additional 320 hours of education per year on STEM topics. Students receive this education in a uniquely designed STEM Fabrication lab, featuring a full suite of digital fabrication tools and prototyping machines. Students not only learn the math and science behind using 3D printers, vinyl cutters and milling machines, but develop the leadership skills necessary to successfully navigate the tech industry.
Students in the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute are taught nine core values: Communication, creativity, collaborative spirit, curiosity, risk taking, leadership, determination, passion and initiative.
“In selecting the core values, we were trying to pick out the things that make a leader. It isn’t intelligence or passing the AP Calculus test that makes one a leader. There are a great deal of things which make one a leader, one of which is learning to take risks. If you have no opportunity to learn how to take risks, possibly fail and then pick yourself up and work, you won’t learn that,” Dr. York remarked.
Presenting risk taking opportunities in a safe, controlled environment is just one way the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute is closing the tech learning opportunity disparity between students in the Silicon Valley. Many associated with the program laud the networking opportunities it presents as the institute’s main benefit.
Medha Kini, a 10th grade participant in the 49ers STEM Leadership Institute, found a new career path through an institute networking opportunity.
“For me, this program really benefits my future, because of the opportunities we get. A few years ago, we had a speaker from Pixar come and talk about her job. That was really interesting to me, because I like to draw and use math in my drawings. She talked about how part of her job as a technical artist is to program her animations to move. This is now something I want to pursue,” Kini said.
Stories like Kini’s make the 49ers believe their heavy investment in STEAM education is paying off.
“Networking is very important. Being able to meet people in the industry doesn’t happen for all students. These students just think these meetings are ordinary life now, though. 10th grade students can now imagine jobs they can hold other than becoming a doctor, lawyer, fireman or policeman. This is a real bonus, not only to them, but the world,” Dr. York remarked.
Leaders in tech education echo Dr. York’s sentiments on networking.
Earlier this year, the 49ers hosted 100 female student participants of Techbridge Girls—a San Francisco area nonprofit aimed at increasing academic and job opportunities for girls and women in STEM—at the STEAM Education Program at Levi’s Stadium. These students not only learned about the science behind the design of a football face mask, but heard firsthand how STEM plays into a variety of career fields within an NFL organization.
“Our girls came out of this experience with higher understanding of a new pathway to STEAM careers they may never have thought or dreamed of. For us, the impact is about exposing girls to new opportunities that may have never been considered in their wildest thinking, but now become part of their arsenal of opportunities as they enter the industry. We serve girls from low income communities and one of the biggest barriers often is the ability to have social capital, which means having a network allowing them to navigate and open doors in this field,” Techbridge Girls’ CEO, Nikole Collins-Puri, said.
In two-years, the first cohort of 49ers STEM Leadership Institute students will sit for the AP Calculus examination and begin receiving college acceptance letters. Dr. York notes results on the examination and university placement will serve as measures of the program’s success. Yet, he notes that even he has learned from the program.
“This is part of my own process of learning to learn. When you can teach others to learn, it’s something that has a positive influence on a greater number of people who will grow to be leaders as adults. We had no vision that what we’re seeing in these programs would be this exciting,” Dr. York said.