Building a Pipeline
Cal State East Bay programs provide STEM opportunities, training to local students
As many advocates know, the word “pipeline” dominates every educator’s discussion of programs that help underserved students master science, technology, engineering and mathematics. To be effective, advocates say, these programs must reach out to students from their earliest school years and continue through high school, college and perhaps even graduate school. Data shows that students emerge from this multiyear pipeline with greatly improved job prospects, higher starting salaries, and a level of science literacy that citizens must develop to be fully engaged in our increasingly technological society.
But the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down Bay Area schools and classrooms in March 2020 changed everything for administrators of STEM programs. Several acknowledged being in triage mode. Many STEM advocates are still brainstorming how to gear teaching methods to the pandemic’s new normal of remote, home-based learning.
Shortly after Cal State East Bay moved to remote learning, Carolyn Nelson, recently retired dean and principal investigator for the Hayward Promise Neighborhoods program, was on a conference call with the federal Department of Education and 80 Promise Neighborhood leaders across the U.S. They covered the need to distribute Chromebooks to students’ homes, food insecurity, and moving IT resources online.
“We discussed how the virus was impacting families in these vulnerable, underserved communities,” said Nelson. “A middle school principal raised the issue of internet connectivity. Because the digital divide is quite pernicious, it’s not about having devices anymore. Now it’s about inequitable broadband access throughout a school district.”
Nelson quickly reached out to Susie Koblin, a project manager for HPNs who works with CSU East Bay’s IT department.
“She must have researched this problem like crazy, because in three days, she gave me numerous, helpful links to share with the principal,” Nelson recalled. “And she discovered that Comcast and other network providers were making Wi-Fi connectivity available to communities free for 90 days. We adopted this approach. We’re lucky that she really took the issue to heart.”
That formula—a mix of improvisation, research, experimentation and idea sharing with a close-knit community offering guidance and encouragement—is the very definition of the scientific method and the animating principle behind Cal State East Bay’s many STEM education programs.
Another essential ingredient is confidence. In a look at three of the university’s programs focused on STEM education, educators explained that having confidence and asking questions are often the first steps to gaining mastery over STEM subjects.
HOST Labs Go Virtual
Danika LeDuc, associate dean for the College of Sciences at Cal State East Bay, is optimistic, having strategized with her colleagues on innovative ways to replicate the immersive learning environment of the university’s Hands-On Science Teaching (HOST) Labs during state-mandated shelter in place requirements.
The teaching and training program, launched in 2014 with initial grants from the National Science Foundation and Stephen Bechtel Jr. Foundation, normally takes place in one of two STEM education rooms on either the Hayward or Concord campuses.
Classroom activities for the seven field trips that take place each semester are designed and conducted by CSU students, most of whom are planning careers as science educators. Thus far, 137 CSU students have served as “science guides,” working with more than 2,400 school children since the program’s inception.
When they arrive in the HOST Lab, the fifth-graders don lab coats and goggles—but not for safety reasons.
“I want to spark their imaginations and see themselves as potential scientists,” said LeDuc, a chemist by training. “This puts them directly into that frame of thought.”
During the fall 2020 semester, CSU students worked with online partners to design activities for remote learning.
“That was not a big switch,” said LeDuc, explaining how her colleagues purposefully chose inexpensive items that are easy to find at the grocery or hardware store. “We want the visiting teachers to take these ideas back to their classrooms without feeling limited by lack of budget or resources.”
Instead of in-person class meetings, the Cal State East Bay students practiced their teaching skills over Zoom, with a family member or roommate filming their effort. Department instructors taught the students how to edit that material and produced a special montage to use for future job interviews and to share with teachers through the campus’s Institute for STEM Education.
While many policymakers point to STEM’s impact on job seekers, LeDuc stresses the social and emotional value of HOST Labs.
“Kids are born with a natural curiosity,” she said. “Anything you can do to show a late tween or early teenager that science is cool—and not boring or too difficult—is worth doing.”
LeDuc warns that too many children still can’t imagine themselves mastering science.
“I remember one program focusing on physics was led by a CSU student, wearing her lab coat, her name tag, and one of our “Science Guide” badges,” LeDuc said. “When the kids arrived, one actually said, ‘Wow—you’re a female scientist? I didn’t know women could be scientists.’ It floors me to think that kind of misconception still exists.”
Creating a Bridge
Promise Neighborhoods are a collection of partners working together to make an impact. Formulation of this place-based initiative came from a promise by President Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign, and was initiated across the country by his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan following Obama’s election.
“It’s a movement that highlights systemic reform,” said Melinda Hall, former Cal State East Bay executive director of HPNs. “Instead of planning separately or in silos, we work together and share resources so we’re not reinventing the wheel with each organization or plan.”
The university launched the “Hayward Promise Neighborhood System” in 2012, initially focusing on the Jackson Triangle area of Hayward.
“HPNs is the bridge between the university and the community,” said Nelson. “Sometimes it’s hard to separate HPNs from what [Cal State East Bay] is doing, because we work so closely with parents and community members. We have a strong network of parents, advisors and educators, so when something like coronavirus hits, we know who to call.”
For HPNs participants, that meant delivering food and Chromebooks to homebound families, providing online advice to K-12 public school teachers, emailing resource lists to school principals, as well as providing the site-based STEM tutoring, classroom assistance and special science-related activities of the pre-pandemic era.
Project-based learning will continue to be central to STEM education. According to Hall, research shows that women and girls are more engaged in learning science concepts when teachers can demonstrate a connection to concrete problems or real-world issues.
One example is the “We Share Solar” project, where middle school students built a solar-power generator inside a suitcase.
“We have such a high percentage of children in our Hayward district that are first-generation students and I could see their emotional engagement with this,” said Nelson. “When the students demonstrated the solar suitcases in their classrooms, you could have heard a pin drop. The kids were enraptured.”
The Next Cohort of STEM Teachers
Last year, the MESA program celebrated its 50th anniversary. MESA launched as a pre-college intervention program in 1970 with 25 students at Oakland Technical High School to develop confidence, leadership skills, and mastery in math, engineering and science. Prompted by a late 1960s study that questioned UC Berkeley College of Engineering’s lack of student diversity, MESA’s model of project-based learning for high school and middle school students has spread across the country.
At Cal State East Bay, the Institute for STEM Education on the Hayward campus oversees an expanded MESA program addressing the needs of 20 middle and high schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. These include in-personal quarterly meetings and other professional development resources for 28 credentialed teachers serving as MESA advisors in these school districts. They work with 600 students in afterschool STEM-based activities focused on engineering design principles.
“We like to say the MESA program was STEM education before the acronym was coined,” said Janiene Langford, interim MESA program director. “There’s an absolute teacher shortage in K-12 STEM education. It’s crucial to support our current educators and help build the next cohort of STEM teachers.”
MESA Day is a statewide contest and the culminating event of the yearlong afterschool program. Student teams enter their collaboratively built prototypes to be judged by MESA advisors and sponsors.
“I’ve seen young students burst into tears when their prototypes won first place,” said Langford. “For me, that affirms how this program builds confidence, exposes talent, and encourages kids to go forward. And while the kids are competitors, there’s also a great sense of community here. They really do make new friends through the day, and get to interact with faculty and professionals who answer questions and share their experiences.”
MESA’s motto is “delivering California’s future STEM workforce.” By 2022, California is expected to have the largest STEM workforce in the nation, with more than 1.4 million jobs in need of talent, according to recent state labor statistics. Some say those predictions are a bit shaky now that the country has entered a recession due to the pandemic. However, a 2012 Bay Area Council report shows that high-tech jobs are more resilient to economic downturns than other private sector industries, pay more, and hold the most promise for continued growth.
“We do talk about STEM jobs and workforce preparedness,” said Langford. “But having a STEM-literate society is crucial. When a crisis like the pandemic appears, it’s urgent to have people who can sift through information. It’s just as important for individuals to understand things rationally, which comes from a familiarity the scientific method, working out what’s proven, real and true.”