In academia, we generally have a common understanding about what is the primary goal of faculty development which is typically defined as the process of providing opportunities to improve specific skills from the areas of teaching to development of grant writing and research skills. But oftentimes the term “opportunities” is often narrowly defined as workshops, professional conferences, seminars, peer-coaching, and so forth. Personally, I can attest to this since all of my professional development experiences have been limited to these kinds of activities.
This year, myself and Dr. Sulki Kim experienced a vastly unique kind of professional development that was categorically different from the typical activities like workshops and conferences. Thanks to the wonderful support of the IFD, our professional development was used to provide seed money in helping to kickstart an undergraduate course where we guided students to develop teaching and research skills in the context of K-12 education.
More specifically, our course was primarily based on helping students to become mentors so they can develop and deliver STEM lessons to 5th grade students at a local elementary school, Kaiser Elementary School in Costa Mesa. As much as students were able to gain direct hands on learning experience, I’d say that I not only benefitted from developing an understanding of how to structure course activities that focuses on facilitating instruction of academic concepts through experiential learning, but also going beyond the faculty-student mentoring relationship by focusing on ways to individually cater and maximize each students’ specific needs and unique skill sets.
Undergirding this innovative undergraduate course is the urgent need to promote increase retention and recruitment of underrepresented groups (e.g., females, Latina/o and other ethnic minorities) into the STEM pipeline. The seeds of this research was developed when Dr. Kim and I had the privilege of presenting at the 2020 Hispanic Association of College and Universities (HACU) to colleagues and expertise on our work to promote awareness of the “P-20 leaky STEM pipeline”, which encompasses all educational levels from preschool to grad school. At a societal level, the urgent need for STEM career is highlighted by these jobs having sped past non-STEM jobs by three times since 2000 with an estimated 3.5 million STEM jobs needed to be filled by 2025, though despite rapid growth only 8% of the total STEM workforce is occupied by Latinosdespite being the largest racial/ethnic minority group in the United States. Putting this into perspective, STEM workers earn approximately 25% more than similarly educated non-STEM workers. The share of Latino college graduates with a STEM degree remains at 12 percent, lower than that for all college graduates (15 percent) in 2018.
More troubling is concerns about the “leaky” Latino STEM pipeline, a metaphor used to describe the sharp gradual loss of students due to broken pathways caused by a variety of forces including limited access to highly qualified teachers and advanced STEM courses. To illustrate this, although Latinx students intended to major in some STEM discipline at higher rates than White students, 45% to 40%, matriculation rates dropped significantly to 11% of those degrees awarded to Latino students compared to 58% to White students.
Built on innovative practices in enhancing pedagogical and research strategies, our proposed solution was to design a course around the principles of community-based learning (CBL) by having Vanguard STEM majors focus on working with early school aged children to boost their STEM self-efficacy, particularly those among ethnic minorities and females, and in essence “closing the gap” so that our own students may also develop stronger connections to their STEM content knowledge and career aspirations. In Fall 2021, we launched the first iteration of this course PSYC 385/EDUC 470 Fieldwork Special Topic scheduled to have its weekly meetings on Tues and Thurs from 3:00-4:15pm with the premise of one day reserved for on-campus meetings and the other day at the school site.
Though the course was built on a patchwork of previous research and past models used in other University-based STEM education partnerships with K-12 schools, we were excited to build this open, dynamic student led program where they would be given autonomy to comprehensively develop many different aspects required to run a STEM afterschool from developing and creating materials for the STEM lesson projects, creating marketing materials and coordinating activities for events to preparing to teach actual STEM content while paired with the tenets of inclusive teaching and culturally responsive pedagogy. Our course had a total of 15 Psychology majors who were able to serve as mentors to the 30 5thgrade students.
Nuts and Bolts of the Experience
The 6 weekly sessions at Kaiser Elementary was very much an engaging, intensive, and all hands on deck experience for all parties involved (myself and Dr. Kim, students and the 5th graders). Though I’ve been a 3rdgrade teacher for 10 years, I still felt like a rookie teacher all over again having to develop and deliver a curriculum for this new generation of students. But the beauty of our fieldwork program was the fact that our Vanguard mentors carried through by injecting their youthful spirit of creatively imagining fun, exciting and educational activities and events with the 5th graders.
Beyond the science experiments and lessons itself, we had several different committees in charge of developing social media content, marketing tools, T-shirts and a party planning team. The list goes on. Students volunteered based on their own strengths and interests, so that they were able to take ownership of this organically evolving program. As corny as it sounds, we as faculty and students alike felt that we were united in this community with the singular purpose of serving the 5th grade students at Kaiser.
Each week we focused on a specific science concept that reflected the same content covered in their science lessons based on the NextGen Science Standards that is the widely adopted standard used in K-12 schools across California and the rest of the country. The 5th graders were grouped into teams of 2-3 students and assigned 1 or 2 mentors, with this student cohort group maintained throughout the 6 weeks. Each week we dived into a new STEM topic from exploration of our biosystem to an egg drop activity where students had to develop a contraption that would be dropped from far distance and built to protect the egg. For example, in the exploration of our ecosystem, we started with a mini lesson that focused on learning key science concepts.
Their objective was to play this scavenger hunt at their school to find certain key items in a biosphere like “leaf”, “insect”, “flowers”,etc. We gave each group their very own Polaroid camera to use and they had find and take pictures of these items. The students then worked on a big poster board that featured a map of their school and placed the scavenger hunt pictures on their poster maps. Following this, students worked on their science journals to document their discoveries. Each week generally followed in this format.
- Week 1 – 🌎 Biosystem: 💻 Video highlights
- Week 2 – ✈️ Flight: 💻 Video highlights
- Week 3 – 🥚 Egg Drop: 💻 Video highlights
On Week 6 in our last session at Kaiser Elementary, our students planned this amazing end of the year party for the 5th graders. Not only did we provide a pizza party, but this event had everything- games galore so that students can win rewards, an awards ceremony for groups that had the best egg drop contraptions, and a certificate of completion given to every student who participated. As much as the 5th graders enjoyed this experience, it was even more rewarding for our Vanguard faculty and students.
Planning the Course in the Midst of COVID
No different from any other thing affected by the global pandemic, our project development ran into many significant snags there were certainly some key opportunities and growth spots that emerged. With our launch in Fall 2021, we built the course around having the first half of the semester focused on building the STEM afterschool program including developing the STEM lesson plans and marketing material with the second half of the semester devoted to about 6 weeks of actually going to the school to deliver the lesson. For certain students who were not necessarily interested in the mentoring and teaching activities, we also provided opportunities for students who wanted to learn and facilitate their skills in research. For example these students developed instruments to collect data on the elementary students’ STEM self-efficacy.
Though we had a partnership with the school, things fell apart as the Fall flu season kicked in and no green light to go into the schools. Given that we could not bring our Vanguard students to teach, we quickly pivoted the course so that students could focus on strengthening the STEM afterschool program for the Spring. The additional time used during the second half of the semester was helpful to strengthen our STEM lessons and research agenda. Around November and December when covid cases started to decline, our partnering school reassured us that March would be the next opportunity for our students to come and work with their students. Fast forward to the Spring semester and we were quite hopeful that we would have a better experience. However, January and February saw a critical surge in the omicron that resulted in our partnering school to regretfully decline our program, which definitely disrupted our plans being able to deliver our program to our school.
In the tail end of February, we reached out to all principals in the surrounding Newport Mesa Unified School District (NMUSD), but all schools were dealing with their own unique problems with staffing and new program developments. To put this into perspective, even many of the local Christian K-12 private schools were hesitant to allow us to go into their school. However, at the end of February, one public school Kaiser Elementary boldly responded to our inquiry and demonstrated interest in allowing our students to go into their school. As we engaged with the school and the possibilities of working with them became increasingly feasible, we were primed and ready to start on Day One.
After finally getting an agreement with the school and finalizing a schedule where we could go into their school weekly starting from March 14 and going until April 28th which would amount to a total of 6 weekly sessions, after factoring into Vanguard and NMUSD’s Spring break. Before our students could officially go into the school, Kaiser Elementary had only one week to recruit students and families to enroll in our afterschool program. And to our immediate surprise, 50 5th graders registered on the first day that recruitment began, which served to be a both plus and negative in the sense that the plus was that we fulfilled our minimum quota of 30 students, but the downside was that not all students could automatically enroll and thus had to participate in a lottery system.
Tribute to Dr. Sulki Kim
I would be remiss if I did not mention that the architect and brains behind this whole operation is Sulki Kim who will not return to Vanguard this coming Fall. It is unreal that sometime before the pandemic, I was just standing in the hallway of her office and this was probably only the second time that we met where we were talking openly about different ways to engage our students in hands on teaching. What started as just imagining the possibility then led to a series of brainstorming then making this an actual class.
Fast forward a few months later, and had the privilege of presenting our idea in the 2020 HACU conference and then formally to our colleagues at the Faculty Gathering promoting community based learning. The huge turnout of students who enrolled in our course was largely due to the outpouring of interest to work with Sulki who had developed this close “motherly” or maybe more like “cool aunt” relationship to these students who trusted her to make this a fun, yet intensely engaging experience.
Sulki’s wealth of knowledge in STEM education provided the necessary infrastructure to build the foundation for this class, not to mention displaying that generous spirit of collaboration and diplomacy to orchestrate this working structure so that students felt empowered to take leadership roles in carrying the program. Though I am saddened to not have Sulki co-teach with me this coming Fall and beyond, the strong foundation that she’s built will no doubt give me and future faculty the groundwork to make this a robust experience for students. Thank you for all you do Sulki!
The “kickstarter” class has continued to be a runaway hit as we have 20 students who will serve as mentors in the Fall and optimistic that we can build on the momentum for future students!