STEM Learning Starts at Birth

Earthworms. Earthworms showed me what STEM learning could look like in Ventura County.

In my 25 years of teaching college chemistry, I have seen how inequities in PK-12th grade STEM education lead to lower college readiness for low-income, Latino, and African American students in our region. It is exactly these students who are needed for a diverse STEM workforce. The phrase, “all Ventura County students … will benefit …,” in VC STEM’s vision statement was purposefully included to ensure that a student’s zip code did not determine whether they had access to STEM learning opportunities. Access to high quality STEM is an equity issue.


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Summer STEM!

Summer is almost upon us!  Kids are stoked and families are excited to spend some quality time together with longer days and relaxing moods before we recharge for another adventurous school year. The great thing about learning is that it doesn’t have to depend on being in school. People learn new things every day and learning is most enjoyable when it’s rooted in relevancy.

The University Preparation Charter School (UPCS) community is continually striving to provide these types of learning experiences to students and teachers not only during the school year but also during the summer. As a professional development school, we take it upon ourselves to be leaders in educating new and veteran teachers with numerous continuing education opportunities and we are kicking off this summer for the third time with the Ventura County STEMposium. This FREE week of teacher learning is made possible through a partnership with CSU Channel Islands and the Bechtel Next Generation of Educators Initiative Grant.


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Robots are blooming on the Oxnard Plain!

“Ask me two years ago what a gear was and I wouldn’t be able to tell you.” – Jacqui 8th grade robotics student

Springtime 3 years ago R. J. Frank Academy and teacher Poem Hanna began a journey to establish an engineering program focused on robotics. What took root with an intensive two weeks of VEX Robotics training, converting classroom space, and unpacking and organizing thousands of pieces of equipment has grown into a successful model of incorporating electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering into our school.

“This class changed my perspective on jobs I could do when grownup, especially programming and how it relates to game design. I love gaming” – Corey 8th grade robotics student

The first year Ms. Hanna began by teaching three Robotics 1 elective classes. The class incorporates an introduction to the design process by solving design challenges involving simple materials. For example, a High Rise challenge using paper and an electrical circuit challenge using conductive playdough. Students also do research about Engineering careers and robots in use or development and present their findings to 6th grade classes which helps to spread the knowledge and interest in STEM school wide.


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“Can Worms see under the Dirt?” Big Questions from Little People

Young children’s questions can be used as a powerful tool to expand their minds, inspire new ideas, and solve problems by finding solutions through innovation. Children need opportunities to ask significant questions that clarify their point of view, the point of view of others and lead to other possible solutions. By intentionally teaching questioning skills Early Childhood Education (ECE) teachers can facilitate a process for deeper learning, creativity, problem solving, innovation and reflection.


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Learning Progressions: Reach for the Stars with Girls in STEM

Bedtime Math is a favorite night-time ritual in our house. My son and daughter cuddle up with me after we’ve finished reading our bedtime books and it’s on to some fun word problems. Bedtime Math (English and Spanish) delivers quick and engaging math story problems every day for children to think, talk through and solve together with an adult at home. Two added benefits of this nighttime ritual is that I’m helping to narrow the “math anxiety gap,” according to a recent University of Chicago study, and I’m introducing math and science as a learning progression at an early age. The app is one step of an intentional strategy to raise my kids with a purposeful exposure to STEM, particularly my daughter. Fortuitously, last night’s Bedtime Math daily math problem centered on the Hubble Space Telescope. My daughter instantly wanted to see Hubble Space Telescope Images. We compared the pictures that Hubble took with what we could see with our naked eye and talked about our new telescope at home. My daughter has been interested in astronomy since she was first introduced to phases of the moon in preschool.


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From Hidden Figures to Modern Role Models

As a little girl, I never knew that three African American female engineers were involved in the Apollo missions back in the early 1960’s. Having recently seen the movie Hidden Figures, I was moved by how Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson overcame trials and tribulations but was able to succeed. Had I seen this movie when I was a child, I know that it would have inspired me to overcome the obstacles that I experienced in my own life. Although my father was an electrical engineer, female African Americans who were Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics (STEM) professionals were not visible to me as role models when I was growing up. I knew that I was good at math in school but I didn’t see myself as a STEM professional.


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Do You Really Like That Tie?

When I first met Ken Blake he was the principal of an elementary school, in a blue-collar neighborhood in Southern California.  I was interviewing for a teaching position and was a little nervous. I wore my best blue velvet suit, a pale blue open-collared shirt with a single gold chain (give me a break – it was the groovy ‘70’s).  I was dressed to impress, or so I thought.    I had been teaching for six years at a school with similar demographics and was pretty confident in my skill set.  I had experience in three grade levels and had participated in teaming situations, before collaboration was vogue.   I had worked for two different principals, neither of whom walked through my classroom or observed me teaching.  My students and their parents loved me and I took care of my own discipline issues.  That seemed to be enough to warrant positive annual evaluations and glowing letters of support.


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Hack your Holiday Lights!

Before you put away your holiday lights, consider re-purposing any old strings of lights or even burnt-out strings for this STEM activity that demonstrates principles of electricity, including series and parallel circuits.

Materials Needed:

  • String of regular or LED holiday lights
  • Wire stripper/ cutter
  • Two C or D size batteries
  • Electrical tape or duct tape
  • Paperclip (metal, not plastic coated)


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In Need of a Mentor

As the daughter of monolingual immigrant parents, academic guidance was never readily available to me. As a matter of fact one of the earliest academic challenges I ever faced was overcoming a language barrier. I was only a first grader at Hathaway Elementary in Oxnard, California, where I was enrolled in a Spanish to English language transition program. Hard times hit and my parents found the need to move their family across the country, to the small town of Fellsmere, Florida, population 5,000.  Here such a language transition program was unheard of. Quickly, I began to fall behind leading to a plethora of missed parent-teacher conferences that my parents could never attend, they were always hard at work. This was amongst the first of many more academic challenges to come. Today I think to myself how different this journey could have been if only I had a professional as a role model, or a mentor who has been through this path before me, to guide and counsel me.  


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Bedtime with Buggy

It’s been many “Good night moons” ago since I read my babies to sleep.  The ritual is pressed neatly in the pages of my heart.  I snapped a photo of the supermoon a few weeks ago and texted it to my sons with the first line of a favorite rhyme.  In no time my phone buzzed in my pocket and I had my own picture with the second line of the rhyme in response.  Storytelling and pondering big questions and little questions will always be a lovely way to the end the day.


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Coding is Fun!

I’ve only recently rediscovered the magic and excitement of coding. My earliest programming experience involved writing Fortran computer programs using punch cards as part of my junior year pre-calculus course. I still remember feeling embarrassed when my teacher, Mr. Flickinger, handed me a giant stack of paper output resulting from my Fortran program having an error that caused it to never end. I feel envious of the many opportunities that kids have these days in being able to learn computer programming, now called “coding”. It seems like there is a new technology coming out every week that uses coding and/or electronics. I am currently spending my “play-time” learning the Python language and how to code programs for Arduino micro-controllers and my Raspberry Pi computer. The inventor inside of me has been “turned-on” to coding.


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