Students across Los Angeles Unified are participating in programming from a group of museums, aquariums and STEM organizations from across L.A. County this summer. From learning about engineering with Tinker the Robot to tackling marine life with the Aquarium of the Pacific, students are able to explore a variety of STEM topics.
Having started with 12 organizations in 2020, the group has now grown to more than 40 and has officially established itself as the LA STEM Collective as it heads into its third summer of programming. The group is now hosting a mix of virtual and in-person enrichment for LAUSD and at parks across Los Angeles.
“It’s been a lot of work, but it’s a really great thing,” said Ben Dickow, who leads the L.A. STEM Collective and is president of the Columbia Memorial Space Center. “I think we see time and time again that this sort of organization that we’ve been building is needed.”
The LA STEM Collective first joined together as schools scrambled to adapt to virtual learning amid the pandemic. Its organizations coordinated enrichment to support California’s largest school district by adapting their own educational opportunities for summer and after-school learning for the district. Hosted by the Wildwoods, which conducts nature-based programs, the collective is contracted by LAUSD to provide summer and after-school programming through summer 2023 for elementary and middle school students.
UCLA professor John Rogers said that though groups like the collective aren’t common, he’s not surprised to see the organizations come together since they have a common goal. He said it’s reflective of that push across groups within the county to provide extra resources in the wake of the pandemic.
“Schools and communities are stronger when a number of different organizations in the broader community are linked and linked in meaningful ways with schools, so that they’re extending the sorts of learning experiences that young people can have,” he said.
Funded in part by Great Public Schools Now, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Adams Legacy Foundation and the National League of Cities, the LA STEM Collective is looking to grow both its offerings and impact. Dickow, as well as some of the organizations that have been involved since the beginning, hope to continue to see growth as they expand their reach across LAUSD and beyond.
“In some ways, you know, we were so wrapped up into responding to crisis that now’s the time for us to take a deep breath, look around and say, ‘OK, now we can actually have a little bit more method,’” Dickow said.
For director of advancement Robin Aube of AltaSea, which has been with the collective since the initiative began, it’s been rewarding to see students flourish as they’ve gone on virtual field trips with the institute, from the port of Los Angeles to Catalina to the port of San Diego and everywhere in between. The institute had to initially adapt to the virtual environment of the pandemic, which was ultimately successful and has continued, she said. Its elementary- and middle-school-age students were more than excited to see what the staff had put together for them.
“Sometimes they just hit it off, and they’re very talkative, and then they have lots of comments, which, of course, makes it fun,” Aube said.
“Shark week and whale week are always a hit,” she added.
AltaSea, which supports ocean sustainability for future generations, filmed much of the footage they used in the fall of 2020 and combined that with YouTube videos and interviews they did over Zoom with other science organizations as well as people working at the ports, Aube said. Each summer and semester brings new ideas as AltaSea tries to implement learning in conjunction with current oceanic challenges.
“I think, all the STEM organizations involved, we just have such an abundance of resources,” she said. “It’s wonderful that we can offer those kids something that maybe they wouldn’t get a chance to experience.”
Aube said being a part of the LA STEM Collective has been a great opportunity for collaboration across organizations. She’s seen students draw connections between the information presented by AltaSea and some of the other organizations. The content complements each other, she said.
That level of collaboration is something Tinker the Robot has also enjoyed and is hoping to continue to grow since joining the collective in the spring. Founder and CEO Kay Yang said the organization is hoping to collaborate with the Los Angeles Maritime Institute to combine its ocean focus with Tinker the Robot’s engineering focus to create a program around biomimicry. The ocean life would influence the engineering design, she said.
Tinker the Robot’s current programming takes an opposite approach to engineering than what is typical, Yang said. The students do the build first, and the organization uses the surrounding excitement to teach the concepts. The organization has most recently worked with middle schoolers through the collective but has adapted programming to students as young as third grade and is hoping to go as young as kindergarten.
“Kids love getting their hands dirty. Building, they love tinkering, they love seeing lights flash, robots move — all of that,” Yang said.
It was tricky adapting some of that to a virtual environment while keeping it engaging, but ultimately worth it, she said. They’ve been hosting both virtual and in-person programs.
At Aquarium of the Pacific, education programs manager Alicia Archer said she doesn’t believe the aquarium will be getting rid of the virtual programming anytime soon since it’s allowed greater access for the elementary and middle schoolers involved, who are spread out across the county. Being part of the LA STEM Collective proved exciting at a time when interaction was limited, and that’s stayed constant, she said.
“We are able to really tailor the program to be interactive and be a conversation with our students,” she said. “When we first started connecting, all the students were just kind of getting used to the Zoom world. Now, they are pros. The students — even the younger students — can jump in to chat, and they share their ideas.”
The aquarium has primarily focused on learning science through art as they’ve drawn and done arts and crafts centered around different animals and ecosystems. It also integrated webcam views of the animals.
With support across the LA STEM Collective, it’s allowed everyone to grow together as they develop programming and figure out what’s best for the students, Archer said. That’s been one of her biggest takeaways since joining in 2020 and one echoed both by Aube and Yang.
“It’s been wonderful, you learned so much,” Archer said. “I think it really shows when we get together and we start talking practice, it really shows the strength of a collective like this.”
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