By Wylie Wong
Teacher Colleen Sutherland and her students stood several hundred steps away from the Campanile, but they were not there to admire the famous Berkeley landmark.
Instead, they were busy peering down a maintenance cover. “You can start your test. I would call this a vent,” Sutherland told the students equipped with air quality sensors, iPads and clipboards to test and record results for particulate matter.
“Put Ninja Turtle hole! That’s what I put,” answered one teenage girl in charge of tabulating the readings.
Meet the inaugural class of the NAF Future Ready Scholars Program, a group of 45 high school sophomores from Vallejo, Antioch and the Central Valley who spent three weeks on campus this past summer taking science, technology, engineering and math classes, while also learning leadership and community collaboration skills.
The Graduate School of Education (GSE) launched the three-year program in collaboration with three educational organizations – a national nonprofit called NAF; Oakland-based SMASH; and Berkeley’s own Lawrence Hall of Science – to prepare students from populations that are underrepresented in STEM/STEAM fields for potential STEM/STEAM careers.
The tuition-free program, funded by an initial $1 million donation from NAF founder Sandy Weill and his wife Joan, began its inaugural summer residency and pilot cohort with students currently attending NAF academies in their local high schools. The majority of these students would be the first in their families to attend college. The GSE aims to cultivate their interest in STEM/STEAM, deepen and expand their skills and STEM/STEAM educational background, and prepare them for the rigors and reality of college.
“The program is designed to build on the existing talents of our scholars while exposing them to careers in STEM/STEAM fields. We are creating opportunities for them to strengthen their skills, confidence, and enthusiasm toward a possible career in a STEM/STEAM field,” said Jennifer Delgadillo Bevington, director of the Scholars program. “They are only 10th graders, but we are hoping this early exposure, skill building and the social-emotional component of the program will help them see this as a possible path in their lives.”
UNIQUE APPROACH TO STEM/STEAM
The program’s first cohort studied and lived on campus for three weeks. Scholars engaged in week-long classes across three domains: citizen science; coding; and solar science. They will return for another three weeks the next two summers and will be joined by a new cohort of sophomores in each of the next two years.
The GSE’s partnership with STEM/STEAM organizations makes the Scholars program unique, Bevington said. For the pilot year, students from NAF Academies were selected. NAF, formerly the National Academy Foundation, provides high schoolers with industry-specific curricula and work-based learning activities, including engineering.
Lawrence Hall of Science educators designed and taught the academic coursework for the Scholars program, while SMASH, a nonprofit that offers summer college preparatory programs, managed dorm life and evening and weekend activities, including leadership, social, emotional and community-based life skills.
“It’s bringing each of our organizations’ strengths together to support and enhance the ecology of these students’ educational lives and increase the chances of sustained academic success. It’s a combination that’s very powerful,” said GSE Dean Prudence L. Carter.
SCHOLARS IN ACTION
Season Nanez, 14, applied for the program for two reasons: enhance her resume for college applications and because she felt it would be fun to be on a college campus.
The program did not disappoint.
“I’m usually home every summer just sitting on the couch, eating junk food, watching Netflix, and it gets really boring. So I’m really enjoying this,” she said during an interview two weeks into the program. “We’re meeting new people and making great connections. We’re learning to be independent, and in our classes, we are learning things we would never have known before. Our peers will learn this later in life. But we got to learn it here.”
The classes are lively, interactive and full of discussion. In the citizen science class, students measured air quality throughout campus, from the UC Botanical Garden to construction sites at Giannini Hall, and Tolman Hall, which is the GSE’s former location and is being demolished. Students saw steam rising from a maintenance cover one morning and wanted to test its air quality, but the steam had disappeared by mid-afternoon. Most students stooped over the maintenance cover with their air sensors, but one kneeled and stuck her air sensor between the grates.
“I got a six,” one student said. “I keep getting zeros,” said another. Students measured for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. Anything less than 10 is considered healthy, Sutherland said.
By week’s end, the citizen scientists said they learned about the effects of air pollution and how they could organize and make change in their communities through environmental justice activities.
“If I didn’t take that class, I would not have any clue what is in the air, what we are breathing in and what can cause us to have lung problems,” said Marrio Davis, 15.
As Sutherland’s class tested air quality on campus, another group was in a nearby classroom showing off their final coding projects: programmable, box-shaped robots that they turned into “space stations.” They decorated and named their space stations: Wall-E; Evil Queen; and Jalapeño Jr.
They used block-based programming to get lights to blink, doors to open and wheels to move them forward and backward. Getting the lights to blink and doors to open and shut was difficult, said Brianna Peters. “There were times I wanted to throw it out the window,” she admitted, laughing.
“And then your space station was really going into outer space, huh?” teacher Sylvia Gonsalves quipped.
But like any good software developer, Peters and Li Ping Huang persisted. They troubleshooted and got their space station to work.
“There were a lot of malfunctions, and we had to reboot everything, but the sense of accomplishment after we finished the code was really fulfilling,” Huang said.
LEARNING LEADERSHIP AND LIFE SKILLS
Some students were admittedly homesick the first few days of the program. But the scholars bonded quickly through the new experience of living in the dorms from leadership and life skills-building workshops and activities on nights and weekends, said Miguel Valencia, SMASH’s residential director.
For two hours a night, a team of SMASH resident assistants (RAs) held impactful learning workshops to help students increase their confidence and elevate their voices, including a group discussion on public speaking. Students pretended they were entrepreneurs on the “Shark Tank” TV show, where they pitched business ideas to investors in hopes of getting funded.
Students were given items to serve as their inventions, such as a cup of instant ramen; a billiard ball; and a box of tissue paper. They met for 20 minutes to develop their presentations, and then they pitched to the RAs, who played the role of investors.
The goal of the learning workshops is to create a safe space for students to be vulnerable, share experiences and develop trust. “I see them bonding and forming into a cohesive group, and I see great social-emotional growth happening from week to week,” Valencia said.
That bonding and cohesiveness carries over into the academic coursework. Students have become tight knit and help each other when they are stuck working on their hands-on projects, said Davis. In the solar science class, they built solar suitcases, which residents in developing countries use for power at night.
“It’s a group effort,” Davis said. “If I feel a classmate is struggling, I will come over and ask, `how are you doing?’ I might have gotten it, so I will say, ‘here I will help you connect this and that.’”
ENSURING STUDENTS ARE ‘FUTURE READY’
Bevington plans to keep the bonds strong throughout the 2019-2020 school year by reuniting the first cohort with educational activities before next summer’s session. The GSE is also planning to offer STEM/STEAM professional development to educators in their schools.
When the inaugural cohort returns to the Scholars program the next two summers, they will be older and ready for more rigorous educational experiences, which is important, said solar science teacher Dr. Eric Campos.
Because college is increasingly competitive, students can get excluded from difficult introductory science courses. The goal for the next two years is to continue teaching them strong studying strategies and prepare them for the challenges of college so they can successfully pursue STEM/STEAM-related disciplines, Campos said.
“That will help bridge the opportunity gap and help with retention of students coming from historically underrepresented or underserved backgrounds who want to go into the sciences,” he said.
In the meantime, the program has already made a difference. Mallie Yang said that in solar science class, she learned how electricity works and now understands the physics of solar energy. “Before I never understood the difference between watts, amps and volts. I thought they were the same thing, and that class simplified it to the point where I could understand it,” she said.
Ace Vo and James Geronimo said they initially thought about going into medicine. Now, they are inspired to possibly study engineering. “I’m having a lot of fun, meeting a lot of new people, and I hope to see them next year,” Vo said.