This blog was authored by Russ Olivo, a columnist at the Woonsocket Call. Read more at woonsocketcall.com and follow Russ on Twitter at @russolivo.
WOONSOCKET — With distance learning now in place for the balance of the school year, students who used to rely on face-time with teachers for extra help are facing new obstacles when it comes to wrapping their arms around the tough subjects – chemistry, physics and math.
But Victor M. Hunt wants students, and their parents, to know there’s a resource available to help those grappling with diminished access to teachers.
The son of Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and Ed Hunt, a former teacher at Lincoln High School, Hunt, 23, is the founding director of Sprout and STEM. It’s a free-all-volunteer service that works sort of like a matchmaker for gifted academic tutors and students who need extra help, particularly those from disadvantaged households struggling with the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and math.
“Our goal is to integrate the academic culture of universities with local schools,” says Hunt. “The bottom line is we want to assist students from historically disadvantaged areas who want to succeed in academic subjects and may not have any additional resources.”
Hunt, who graduated from University of Rhode Island with a degree in biological sciences in 2019 and plans on applying to medical schools, launched the organization last summer with a pilot program at Classical High School in Providence.
The original model was built on face-to-face education. Tutors, some of them with advanced degrees from the state’s most prestigious colleges and universities, would meet with students after class.
Like every other educational institution in the state, however, Sprout and STEM has been forced to pivot due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With K-12 schools shut down and distance learning substituting for class-based instruction, the fledgling tutoring service lost its platform or providing services.
But the hiatus didn’t last long.
Adapting to the new socially-distanced realities of learning, Sprout and STEM is now trying to call attention to its newly created online tutoring platform and Zoom sessions.
“We’ve created an online forum on our website,” says Hunt. “We’ve opened it up to all Rhode Island students. All they have to do is register their email.”
There is no charge or any fee for the service. Volunteer tutors are just that – volunteers. They don’t get paid. A student can use the online forum and type in a question about any science-related subject, and one of the tutors will answer the question promptly and attempt to provide some clarification.
“We want to make people aware, especially parents, that free tutoring is uncommon,” says Hunt. “It’s usually a $50-60 per hour service for those that can afford it.”
Sprout and STEM has a stable of about 20 volunteers who are offering their services. One is a medical doctor and a Brown University alumnus; two are pharmacy doctoral candidates at the University of Rhode Island; and others are students who just completed undergraduate studies in the natural sciences at URI.
They offer help in 17 distinct course subjects, including biochemistry, biomedical engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering and more, according to Hunt.
Hunt doesn’t envision Sprout and STEM ever becoming a for-profit organization. Though he’s uncertain how long he’ll be associated with the effort, he envisions one day turning it over to a post-secondary institution to run as an independent, permanent entity for the benefit of students from low-income households.
This far-reaching effort sprang from decidedly humble beginnings.
As Hunt explains on the Sprout and STEM blog, it all began last summer when he and some college buddies were having a meal at one of their favorite spots, the Den Den Korean Fried Chicken restaurant in Providence. At the time, the troubles in the Providence School District were making headlines after a report by John Hopkins University concluded the district was basically dysfunctional.
Hunt and his friends got to talking about the report and soon came to realize that it highlighted a major contradiction in Rhode Island’s culture of education.
Wasn’t it ironic, they agreed, that the state is host to some of the most highly regarded colleges and universities in the nation, while its public schools were marked by such lackluster performance.
It was right there, while eating fried chicken and rice, that Hunt decided he’d to do something to try to help.
A graduate of Woonsocket High School, Hunt says that at its core, Sprout and STEM is an attempt to leverage the assets of the state’s colleges and universities to improve public schools.
“Rhode Island has boasted very successful universities while public schools have always seemed to struggle,” says Hunt.
Hunt, who says he loves science and education, had experience tutoring genetics and other subjects at URI, and became one of Sprout and STEM’s first volunteers.
As he looks back on his experience in public education, Hunt says he considers himself lucky to have been raised by parents who value education. But he says one reason why kids fall back in school is that of “selective enforcement” of educational accountability and expectations.
Having escaped the attention of their advisors, under-performing pupils come to believe post-secondary education is beyond their reach.
“I firmly believe that additional resources and networking would have fostered higher standards and expectations among this underperforming portion of former high school peers,” he writes on his blog.
Students in need of tutoring can find the site at www.sproutandstem.org.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo