Northern STEM professors and students. Courtesy photo
ESPANOLA — From October 2015 through July 2016, Northern New Mexico College Environmental Science, Chemistry and Engineering professor/student teams implemented a STEM Academy for middle school children in the region.
The core idea was to promote STEM education and careers in middle schools with an emphasis on girls.
Funded by a $50,000 grant that Dr. Pedro Martinez was awarded from the LANL Community Relations and Partnerships Office, the project delivered more than 40 hands-on sessions to 91 students (43 girls, 48 boys) in environmental science/chemistry, and engineering/computer programming in Arduino and Scratch.
Participating schools were La Tierra Montessori, Mesa Vista, McCurdy, Pojoaque and Aspen Magnet Community School. In addition, Northern led a two-day computational thinking workshop for eight middle school teachers from Aspen, McCurdy and Pojoaque.
“We thank LANL Community Programs for providing the funding to bring STEM awareness to Middle School students and for their generosity and vision in STEM education,” NNMC Interim Provost Dr. Ivan Lopez said. “Hands-on and early exposure to STEM increases effectively the pipeline of students pursuing degrees in high-demand technical and scientific fields. We deeply appreciate that LANL continues to collaborate with Northern in this important endeavor.”
Some of the sessions were onsite at the College, others took place at the middle schools. In all of the sessions, Northern STEM students participated as mentors under the supervision of Northern professors.
“A key focus of our STEM Academy is empowering and training Northern STEM students as mentors in the public schools,” said Dr. Steven Cox, assistant professor in Northern’s College of Engineering & Technology. “We envision placing successful college students from Northern as mentors and role models in all middle and high schools in the region.”
Ronald Weese, one of Northern’s student mentors, is a 50-year-old construction worker and veteran who has returned to college to become an engineer. “Although engineering is difficult,” he said, “mentoring gave me the opportunity to show that it can also be fun!”
Two other student mentors, Desiree Sandoval and Florian Castillo, 19-year-old sophomores and graduates of Española Valley High, view their mentoring experiences as a way to both advance in their field and make a difference in their community.
“It was great to teach the kids and awesome to give back to the community,” Florian Castillo said. “It was a great opportunity to get them thinking about what they going to do after school is over, and that they could do anything as long as they put their mind to it.”
“I enjoyed working with Dr. Cox and peers from my old high school,” Desiree Sandoval said. “I liked being able to introduce Scratch because it’s a simple way to get into programming. It was great to watch students try out new things and really customize their own games.”
The STEM Academy also gained significant support from area principals and educators.
“It was a wonderful enrichment opportunity for our students,” said Dolores Salazar, guidance counselor at McCurdy Charter Secondary School in Española. “Those who participated enjoyed the on-campus experience of science lessons and experiments. When they returned to campus they were invigorated.”
“I also want to thank [Northern] for training three of our teachers in Computational Thinking,” said Mr. David Nez, principal of Aspen Community Magnet School in Santa Fe. “They will be able to develop multi-disciplinary projects with their students.”
“Professor Cox and his Northern mentors brought a hands-on, 4-to-1 student teacher ratio to our summer school,” said Ms. Vera Trujillo, principal of Pojoaque Valley Middle School. “It was a great partnership and laid the foundation for the new Robotics club that will begin this fall at Pojoaque Valley Middle School.”
Northern conducted pre- and post-surveys among the middle schoolers to evaluate (ranging from “boring” or “terrible” to “fun,” “exciting,” and “awesome”) how interesting and relevant they judged the STEM Academy experience, and to measure changes in their perceptions of STEM studies and careers.
Overall results show that 80-85% of the participants found the sessions “fun and interesting,” were more confident of their abilities in STEM and were were no longer afraid of engaging in STEM activities.
The most popular segments were Environmental Science/Chemistry and Engineering/Scratch & Robotics, leading to the greatest positive changes in attitudes and increase in confidence in student’s STEM abilities.
Scratch is at once an online game studio and digital sandbox that introduces the fundamentals of programming and computational thinking in a fun, intuitive and highly interactive way. Scratch proved to be great preparation for the slightly more challenging task of programming robots.
Northern’s commitment to the students of Pojoaque Valley Middle School will continue this fall with the creation of a Robotics Club, thanks to a generous grant to Professor Cox from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.