From Coding to Engineering, STEM Takes Over Summer School Curriculum

In the minds of many children, "summer" and "school" simply should not mix. But that's not the case for students at several Bay Area schools, where a STEM-centered approach to education is luring them to the classroom. 

Across the Bay Area, these tech-friendly courses are springing up in the earliest grades. First and second graders are learning coding skills, while third and fourth graders are building rocket ships. One summer program even caters to female students and aims to close the formidable gender gap in the tech industry. 

What these classes offer, according to teachers, is a chance at total immersion in tech and science — something not practical during the traditional academic year, when students are juggling multiple subjects. 

"During the school year, they don't really get the opportunity to do science like they do in summer school, "explained Nicole Patrizi, a science teacher at Foothill Elementary, where a summer program was held in June. "They're collaborating, they don't fight and it makes a huge difference."

The program at Foothill Elementary was open to underperforming students. In a space-themed learning module, the kids created their own planet and learned what it would take to make it hospitable for human life. They also made rockets out of styrofoam — a highlight for the students, who enjoyed propelling them into the air using rubber bands.

"The whole interaction of them building something and seeing it work is cool," Patrizi said. "But seeing them fail the first couple times with the rockets and go back at it without getting upset, that was such a great learning opportunity." 

In recent years, a wealth of similar programs has emerged, including youth-friendly courses at prestigious universities such as Stanford and UC Berkeley. The courses are a far cry from what parents, or even millennials who attended summer school a decade ago, might think of as traditional curriculum.

"The whole program is all about students trying to come up with inventions and innovation," said Rachelle Fabionar, a Foothill Elementary teacher.

At Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill, female students spent one week learning to code through a program called Girls in Robotics Leadership Camp (the aptly-acronymized "GIRL Camp") That program is one of many across the country that are trying to dispel harmful stereotypes and encourage young girls to pursue male-dominated professions. The Valley View program was completely free to students. 

The camp was taught by Shauna Hawes, a Contra Costa County Teacher of the Year. 

"I get to see kids who are not artistic do beautiful work," explained Hawes in a previous interview with NBC Bay Area. "I get to see students who have never been good at math suddenly do coding and robotics and be proud of themselves," she said. 

Researchers have found that fostering a sense of belonging and camaraderie can help students improve and engage academically in STEM fields, especially for students who belong to marginalized groups.

"For women and any other negatively stereotyped groups, belonging really determines whether you stick it out in a field that interests you," noted Nilanjana Dasgupta, a psychology researcher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an interview with the National Science Foundation. "...Poor performance is not what drives them out. Feeling like they fit in, or not, is the critical ingredient that determines retention." 

And that, according to teachers, is what these programs aim to achieve — retention, collaboration, and an education program that will have real-world applications. 

"When they're collaborating, they're becoming interested," Fabionar said. "And the hope is that maybe next year, they will take more of an interest and feel more confident in these subjects."

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