Huddled around a picnic table in the courtyard of East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, a group of middle-schoolers and Stanford students were hard at work.
In front of them lay a mess of pipe cleaners, old cardboard, aluminum foil, tape and various other household materials. To an outsider, it might have looked like junk, but these students saw endless possibilities.
“Last week we showed them a video about people living in rural Nigeria who faced some challenges in accomplishing everyday tasks like cooking for their families,” said Raul Gutierrez, a second-year master’s student in electrical engineering at Stanford.
Now, the EPAPA students, for whom Gutierrez and his Stanford colleague Priscilla Serrano served as mentors, were using the materials to prototype solutions to some of those challenges.
One eighth-grader showed off a wheelbarrow low-rider she designed to prevent backaches among the Nigerian women who had to haul firewood long distances for cooking. Another demonstrated a backpack baby carrier that could make it easier to care for children while cooking.
The activities were part of an afterschool partnership between EPAPA and d.loft STEM Learning, a National Science Foundation project which is led by Shelley Goldman, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education; Sheri Sheppard and Bernie Roth, professors at the Stanford School of Engineering; and Maureen Carroll, a lecturer at the GSE and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, or the d.school.
The program complements the charter school’s science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) offerings in a low-pressure, afterschool environment. Focusing on teaching design solutions that emphasize empathy, it has reached about 60 EPAPA students over the last three years, with some returning for a second year.
The undergraduates and graduate students who staff the program are enrolled in a course called “Educating Young STEM Thinkers,” taught by Goldman and Carroll. The course meets twice a week in winter and spring. One class day is spent developing activities that tie together design thinking with STEM concepts and career information. The other day is spent doing the activities at EPAPA.
“We offer them a different kind of intensity than they normally get at school,” said Goldman. “It’s a one-hour whirlwind. We walk in the door, sometimes we do an improv activity to warm up, the kids get together with their groups, materials are whipping out, and the challenge of the day is set. Then at the end we have some sort of closing, and they go back to their desks and sit quietly to do homework after we leave."
At the end of the quarter, the Stanford team gathers the best activities tested at EPAPA and turns them into a four-week STEM and design thinking curriculum. That curriculum, which is made available for free on the project's website, later gets used in summer school classrooms in Sunnyvale in partnership with the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP).
Goldman and her colleagues have also trained upwards of 400 pre-service and in-service educators in California and Utah to use design thinking in their classrooms.
But the afterschool program has a special impact, Goldman said – and not just on the EPAPA students. The Stanford participants say the course has helped them become more effective teachers and learners, and even directed some to pursue STEM education as a career.
“I don’t think we realized the power of the Stanford course when we started,” she said. “There’s a lot of research about how mentorship is good for the mentors and good for the people who get mentored, but I still think we were underestimating it.”
Finding what works
Curtis Wang, a student in the Learning, Design, and Technology master’s program at the GSE, said it was challenging to find activities that were engaging for the EPAPA students. One seventh-grader, in particular, he said, seemed difficult to reach at first.
“She would always be looking away, distracted by students walking behind us,” he said. “But over the weeks, as we gave them more engaging activities and figured out how to create a safe space for her, she felt a lot more comfortable and opened up a lot more.”
Mona Eskandari, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, agreed. The breakthrough moment occurred midway through this year’s program, when her Stanford team decided to try an egg drop activity. The EPAPA students had to design shelters that could protect a raw egg from a fall from the school’s second-floor balcony.
“At the end of the day I asked this same student what her favorite part was, and she said, ‘Everything was fun.’ I just gawked at that moment,” Eskandari said. “I felt like she had handed me the world - finally!”
The partnership also helps put a personal face on STEM fields, for middle school students who might benefit from an extra nudge. A majority of the students at EPAPA come from households with little income and little formal education. Many also speak English as a second language.
“They’re in a school where people are working hard to mitigate all kinds of circumstances, to help these students be successful,” said Goldman. “We’re here to support what’s already happening in this environment
, and to get some of them excited about STEM.”
For Eskandari, rethinking gender stereotypes is part of the impact she can have on the EPAPA students.
“Engineering is not something that girls are often raised to believe we can do,” she said. “I’m a female in engineering, too, and I realize that sometimes society tells a different story from what we’re trying to teach them. Yes, you are a girl, and yes, there are very few women in engineering. But you can do it. The fact that it started to grow on my students really made me happy. The feeling of gratification, that I’ve done something - that was like the cherry on top of it all.”
Goldman believes that the relationships the Stanford students and EPAPA students form are crucial. “The EPAPA students are getting a positive role model, a relationship with someone who isn’t too far away from seeming like them,” she said.
Wang, who formerly taught science in Toronto, put it this way: “In teacher certification programs they talk about differentiated instruction, how you try to adapt your lessons to suit each student’s needs. But that’s virtually impossible in the classroom settings we have these days. So having these mentorship programs where the mentor-student ratio is almost 1-to-1 is a very powerful thing.”
A two-way exchange
The majority of the Stanford students who enroll in the class are studying education or engineering, and they find themselves profoundly impacted by their experiences.
Eskandari said the program has assured her of her goals. “I went into engineering because I wanted to help people,” she said. Initially she felt that designing medical devices would provide the kind of direct impact she wanted. She’s since been exploring education.
“Paying it forward is what motivates me. You need that drive and motivation, some sort of ‘umpf’ every day when you get out of bed,” she said. “The fact that I would be educating the future generation, making them feel empowered — that is something that I really look forward to. Now I'm 100 percent sure of my path.”
For Wang, serving as an afterschool mentor has also opened his mind about what K-12 STEM instruction should look like.
“It's possible to facilitate a STEM activity and focus more on building inquiry skills or habits of mind that you hope would transfer into STEM,” he said. “The big change for me was being a lot more comfortable with that, and letting go of the notion that if they’re learning science, they have to learn science facts.”
The university course requirements also include creating a “STEM bio,” a first-person account of the Stanford students’ own pathways to and through the STEM fields.
“Students have been amazingly honest about the struggles they’ve faced,” said Goldman. “We’ve heard stories of students who admit the troubles they’ve faced inside engineering and science. They’ve had to find ways to make it palatable, to play it to their strengths. Working with middle school students, there’s a bit of search for self going on there.”
Added Wang: “Just as the students at EPAPA have their own backstories, we mentors have our own experiences as well. Whether or not we're conscious of that, we always bring a piece of that into the classroom with us.”
Goldman said the drive and determination of the EPAPA students also serves to motivate the Stanford group, and EPAPA’s commitment to STEM education allows the partnership to flourish.
Ice cream treat and soda science
On the final afterschool session of the school year, June 3, the Stanford team celebrated - in "STEM-style" - with the EPAPA students the accomplishments over the past few months.
In one area of the courtyard, a group measured ice, salt, cream and vanilla flavoring into plastic bags. “We’re making ice cream!” one student exclaimed.
In another area, students added Mentos candy to two-liter bottles of soda to watch them explode. They used a prototyping approach, something they had learned from the design thinking curriculum, to find the most effective way to drop the most candies as quickly as possible. (The winning strategy was to stick a row of candies to a strip of tape and drop it in all at once.)
Back in the classroom, Goldman had taped three t-shirt designs to the whiteboard. As students funneled in to grab pieces of pizza, she reminded them to place a sticker next to the one they wanted to vote for. Each design featured the EPAPA mascot - a phoenix - along with the names of both schools.
“This is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had as a university professor, because I see the whole spectrum being affected - from me as a teacher to Stanford students to middle school students,” she said. “It’s a wonderful explosion of energy, brightness, know-how, commitment, and passion that comes together in these relationships. I will commit to this for as long as I can pull it off.”
Tanner Vea, a PhD student in the Learning Sciences and Technology Design program at the Graduate School of Education, is an intern in the GSE communications office.
Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.