How We’re Bringing STEM Education to Youth in D.C.
I’m Casandra Woodall, the Education Outreach Director at Appian, and I’m excited to talk about Appian Thrive, a program that brings STEM education to students in D.C.. It’s one of the ways Appian gives back, and coming from a background in education I’ve seen how it serves a need in our local community and creates an impact.
From classroom teacher to tech company.
I’m a former educator and started my career as a classroom teacher. Education advances equity and ensures every student has the opportunity they deserve to pursue the future they want. That’s my north star — it’s guided my career in education and led me to Appian.
I’ve worked in government at the Department of Education, at nonprofits who introduce tech into classrooms, and now I manage the Appian Thrive program which coaches and teaches students about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
Appian employees volunteer to be coaches and support operations and we work with teachers, parents, and students to develop curriculum. We are able to bring transformative experiences including our weekly after school STEM program to the DC Public Schools and Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). Together we’ve built something that changes students' lives.
Our Appian coaches working with 7th grade students at CHEC in D.C..
Students get to explore STEM early on.
The Appian Thrive Education Outreach Program started in 2020 as a way to give back to our local DC community and empower students from historically marginalized communities to thrive and achieve their goals. It’s a weekly after-school program that started with students in sixth grade and we continue with the same group of students every year.
Appian reevaluates and creates the yearly curriculum, working closely with parents, teachers, and administrators through the cohort's high school graduation.
We have more than 100 Appian employees volunteer with the program; and 30 coaches to help with the weekly curriculum and activities. We’ve also partnered with Appian Affinity Groups for events, collaborating with AppianWomen to plan an Hour of Coding for middle and high school girls at CHEC. These gatherings have been a fun way to introduce computer science and the basics of coding to the classroom. We also worked with AppianHeritage and AppianWomen to host guest speakers who are willing to share their education and career journey with students and inspire them to explore careers in STEM and beyond.
It’s all about exploration and providing opportunities for students to be curious, creative and think about what they’re interested in and what they’re good at. They also get the chance to learn about careers they didn’t know existed from Appian employees who coach and mentor students. If students never pursue a career in IT or tech, I’m okay with that, that’s not the goal. It’s that they have opportunities to explore new things, and be curious and creative, and those skills you can apply to anything. They’re learning critical thinking skills and have the ability to do so in a non-academic setting and low-risk environment, surrounded by supportive coaches.
The program activities include:
- Robotics League
- Design thinking challenges
- Industry field trips
- College visits
- High school internships
- Mentorship with Appian employees
- Volunteer and community engagements
The Robotics League was a big hit last year! We had Appian volunteers come in each week and teach students about block based coding through LEGO in a very visual hands-on way. Everyone was divided into small teams, assigned a coach, participated in a series of challenges, and competed against each other at the end of the year. It's more than learning about coding, it's about teamwork, problem-solving, collaboration, and learning from each other.
Students and coaches in a Robotics League session.
Showing up for our community in a way that matches their needs.
Part of how Appian operates is that we work to impact and this applies to this program too — we don’t just want to be one and done, give a handful of textbook resources for students to learn and that’s it.
When we decided to do this program, we invested the people, time, and resources needed to have a real effect on young people. That’s why we modify the curriculum every year, experiment to see what students enjoy doing, and work closely with the school and parents to collect feedback. It takes time to build trust with students and Appian coaches, so that’s why we have one cohort that the program sticks with as they grow older.
From my background in teaching and in the education field, I’ve seen how there’s a gap in students having opportunities to learn about STEM. Especially with students of color and young girls, they don't always see themselves in STEM field roles.
At the local high school, students can be eligible to enroll in what’s called the IT Academy, but we heard from educators that students were often nervous to take it. It can feel really daunting if you’ve never done coding before. By introducing STEM to students at a younger age through the Appian Thrive program, we hope to take away some of the anxiety and make it feel possible for them.
Giving back to our community is important at Appian, but we wanted to ensure we were doing it the right way — first talking to our community and doing our research to understand their needs. We want to find what problems they were facing, and what we could help solve.
One of our students in the Appian Thrive program keen to learn robotics and design thinking!
Making an impact with youth.
I’ve been most inspired by the students and how they stick with it. It’s a voluntary after school program and the fact that these students keep coming back week after week shows we’re doing something right. They’re excited to do more learning after the school day!
One student enjoyed our Robotics League so much they enrolled in a STEM program at a local college. Actions like these prove we are making a difference, and multiplying that by all the 120 students in the cohort and 100+ Appian volunteers, that’s a lot of impact.
It's fun watching the connections grow; and seeing students letting their guard down by; talking about their personal lives and challenges at school with the Appian coaches. This builds trust and I’ve heard from our coaches how meaningful and rewarding the experience has been for them too.
Often Appian coaches want to give back because they had a teacher or mentor help them when they were young, or early in their career, and they want to help create that experience for someone else.
Managing the program and training our volunteers is a lot like teaching. It’s about learning how to coach students, build connections, and approach conversations with curiosity and show how you care and believe in them.
It’s powerful seeing the trust built through this program and students gaining skills and confidence, knowing that they have people cheering them on, who are in their corner.