Cal Poly professors have teamed with third through fifth grade Paso Robles School District teachers to bring STEM modules — detailed lesson plans oriented around science, technology, math and engineering — to their elementary school classrooms and ultimately disseminate to non-participating districts.
The partnership program is administered by liberal studies department chair Lola Berber-Jimenez. It’s a California Math and Science Partnership (CaMSP), she said, which is part of the No Child Left Behind funding from the California Department of Education. The program gets approximately $500,000 a year for three years.
Chemistry and biochemistry professor Seth Bush is a collaborator on the project.
“So during the entire year there’s a cohort of 60 teachers who work with teacher leaders from Cal Poly and teacher leaders from their district to build these modules, and then those teachers bring that to their classrooms,” Bush said.
Some of these elementary school students could be future Cal Poly students, so the university benefits from investing its resources in the school district.
“We ask ourselves, ‘How do we bring permanence to the students so that way, when we get students at Cal Poly, they’re better students and we can do more with them?'” Berber-Jimenez said.
The Cal Poly professors rely on the teachers to take the college-level learning they provide and make it understandable for younger students.
“I can’t teach magnets at the level that I want the kids to do, I have to teach magnets at a college level.” Bush said. “So the teachers and I, we learn it at a college level, and then this is where the teacher expertise comes in as a group. They discuss and they hash out and they think about, ‘How do we take this college-level understanding and bring that to a fourth grader?'”
The state has backed the program with a hefty grant, which requires a full-time employee run its daily operations. This responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of CaMSP project director and Paso Robles School District employee Trina Nicklas.
This summer, Cal Poly professors began the professional development process with a two-week intensive training workshop with the teachers, focusing on engineering first.
But the professional development training process doesn’t end in the summer. Cal Poly professors reinforce learning by holding teacher workshops throughout the school year.
Over the years, Nicklas has seen a directive from the government to implement STEM topics in elementary school classrooms to be competitive globally.
“We’re seeing way more science in education, because you need to catch them early,” Nicklas said. “Studies have been done, and if you don’t catch students between third and fifth grade, then they may never take up an interest in STEM. There’s also a lot of talk about catching girls and getting them hooked on STEM.”
Through their involvement with the school district, Bush and Berber-Jimenez have seen the emergence of a family science night at school campuses.
“It’s so much fun,” Bush said. “Imagine that you have a back to school night, but the theme of the back to school night is science, technology, math and engineering.”
The family science night, or STEM night, is spreading from Paso Robles to other school districts.
“It used to be just one teacher who would do one math and science night a year, and now every elementary school in Paso is doing it.” Nicklas said. “Several of the elementary schools in Templeton, Lucia Mar, San Luis and Guadalupe are doing it. We have, like, 10 on the calendar for this year. It’s fabulous.”
Bush would like to see Cal Poly clubs use STEM night as an opportunity for community outreach.
“If clubs on campus want to participate in these family science nights, they should contact us, because we’d love to have them get involved,” Bush said.
Above all, this partnership sets a meaningful example of the Cal Poly motto.
“We learn a ton from the teachers, and the teachers learn a ton from the students, so it’s the ultimate Learn By Doing,” Berber-Jiminez said. “We have it at this level, and now we can actually bring what we learn to the classes that we teach Cal Poly students.”