Blog

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts

January 20, 2021

By Dr. Jerry Valadez, President and CEO, SAM Academy

Thanks to the 2019 Infy Maker Award, SAM Academy, based in Sanger, CA, has been able to build upon its curriculum, pedagogy and project-based approach to engaging youth in making, critical thinking, and engineering. The mission of SAM Academy is to help communities build leadership and promote positive outcomes by supporting youth and their parents in becoming contributing members of society through STEM and the arts. This mission is accomplished through community-based educational programs that are grounded in respect for diverse learners; equity and social justice; positive youth development through inter-generational mentoring; and innovation in technology. The grant from the Infosys Foundation USA has enabled us to reach more families and provide sustained and meaningful learning experiences at the intersection of STEM and making by bringing more students into the Sanger SAM Academy Science Workshop from the surrounding local community, increasing capacity by empowering high school students to become mentors, and adding programming for all second and sixth graders at the local elementary school. Below are some highlights of our work.

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts

Reaching more youth through the Del Rey Saturday Shuttle
Del Rey is a small rural town that sits about seven miles south of Sanger with 1,600 residents, a post office, small market, elementary school, and the POM Wonderful production plant. The city is 98% minority (90% Latino) and 100% of students at the local school receive free or reduced lunch. More than 45% of Del Rey youth live below the poverty line. There is a small park and a Boys & Girls Club located in the Housing Authority site, but little else in the town for kids to do. Del Rey has a serious gang problem which does spill over to other communities in the Valley. Thanks to the Infy Maker Award, SAM Academy was able to shuttle 10-15 students to the Sanger SAM Academy Science Workshop each Saturday, engaging youth in a program focused on STEM, making and art. These experiences enabled them to develop positive values, self-esteem, and work directly with older youth role models (research specific to gang prevention and intervention cites the importance of engaging programs as alternatives for youth and families with specific at-risk criteria, economic disadvantages, and societal barriers).

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts

The Wilson Elementary Community Science Workshop – Expanding Outreach
The next time you hear the sound of hammers, buzzers, and students talking about learning, it just may be the sound of Wilson Elementary School students doing engineering, inventing or making art in the library – the Wilson Community Science Workshop. With support from the Infosys Foundation USA, 200 Wilson Elementary students continued to participate in a unique class, held once a week in the library, provided by SAM Academy called the ‘Wilson Community Science Workshop’. Walking into the Wilson library for STEM, students always get very excited because they know this will not be like any other class they had taken before. Tucked into one corner of the library along two sides of the room are long wood workbenches, pegboards with tools, boxes, bins, and tall racks with lots of different materials. The designed space in the library, an extension of the Sanger SAM Academy’s Community Science Workshop, became a weekly experience for grades two through six to tinker, make, and learn STEM topics. Making in our schools has become a growing movement of hands-on learning that fosters experimentation through design thinking and project-based learning with a focus on STEM and the arts. Often students began a semester by making their own cloth covered notebook, held together by stitches they sewed themselves, and then use the notebooks to record and document the things they created, built, and invented.

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts

Empowering High School students to be Mentors and Leaders in STEM and Making
The Sanger SAM Academy’s Community Science Workshop is a free drop-in program on Saturdays and school vacation days that engages youth and families to become confident scientific thinkers, doers, and makers. Local high school students play a critical role in its operations by volunteering to help run STEM and making activities and serve as mentors. More than 140 students from Sanger High School and Kings River High School have participated in the Maker/Mentor Cohort over the last six years. Currently 30 students serve in the program and continue even during the Covid-19 shutdown. These students met every Saturday. Some became the SAM Academy Project Invent Team, while others mentored younger students, learned career skills and mentoring strategies, worked on community projects, and showcased murals they created in local parks.

Responding to needs during COVID-19
All schedules came to a halt in March 2020 with the surge in COVID-19. With Fresno County being on the state’s priority list, the COVID-19 pandemic had serious impacts on all aspects of our non-profit operations. For the SAM Academy Music Studio, the ‘shelter-in-place’ mandate initially halted each student’s musical progress and caused us to temporarily furlough the music teachers for several weeks. It also caused us to cancel the annual in-person May Music Recital (moved to a virtual Recital). We immediately went to work on developing the infrastructure needed to offer virtual music lessons, providing devices and training each instructor on how to use Zoom to teach music. Protocols were also set up for each family to support their students at home. When parents were contacted with this option they were thrilled to participate, but also needed help to guide students at home. Knowing the digital divide is a real thing in our communities, we worked with each family to find an option for a device that could work, and also offered the first four virtual lessons free. In our first seven months of virtual lessons, we had a 90% participation rate.

On the STEM and making side of SAM Academy’s operations, the impact of COVID-19 has been very serious as well. School closings essentially shut our STEM-Rich making program down and resulted in all in-school events to be canceled. We immediately began work on the design of virtual STEM and making projects and working with the broader Community Science Workshop Network. We prepped and delivered over 4,500 STEM kits to Dos Palos schools, Chowchilla schools, Sanger schools, and the Watsonville Library. We were also able to offer a Virtual Summer Camp in June and July for 30 students in Del Rey. This involved creating ‘Science Kits’ in a box that each student took home weekly. These individually boxed projects for each student were supported by virtual classes held by Zoom each week for 10 weeks. Protocols for setting up these virtual classes were developed with a production team created for each class. Instructions printed in color were provided in English and Spanish, and a YouTube video was created to help students with the ‘build’ of each project. We now continue to develop virtual classes as part of our ‘after school’ and ‘in-school’ options and have begun to market our virtual program to schools and libraries. All of the projects and videos developed can be found here. The YouTube videos can be seen on YouTube.com/cswnetwork.

Growing A Community-Based Approach to Engaging Youth in STEM and the Arts