Thu08282014

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Local students gain hands-on experience at Foothill STEM Summer Camps


Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Palo Alto High School sophomore Kelsey Wang, left, and Trini Inouye, a senior at Los Altos High, flank instructor Oxana Pantchenko as they collaborate on a Foothill STEM Summer Camps project that uses the sun’s energy to power a motor.

Local high school students enrolled in Foothill College’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Summer Camps are using their hands and minds in ways that most classroom learning environments aren’t able to facilitate.

“Students are given a kit and what they are told is, ‘Do it,’” said Peter Murray, dean of the Physical Sciences, Mathematics & Engineering Division at Foothill, of the camp. “They aren’t told how to do it, so they have to take things apart and experiment themselves.”

Los Altos and Mountain View high school students are among the 90 Bay Area participants in the program this year.

Designed for female and underrepresented students interested in expanding their scientific knowledge, the STEM Summer Camps include four sessions covering topics in Energy and Power, Robotics, Math and Water.

The camps are only one piece of the program Foothill College advances via its Science Learning Institute (SLI). Under the SLI umbrella, the college is undertaking a major push to increase STEM literacy and the number of STEM graduates by engaging the large and untapped talent pool of female and underrepresented students.

“The SLI is really working to develop more STEM graduates,” Murray said. “If you look at Silicon Valley, we are losing all those skills, and we’ve actually been importing them.”

Hands-on learning

Using socially relevant, hands-on methods of teaching and learning, the STEM Summer Camps encourage students to pursue STEM studies, and provide them with the support they need to succeed.

Most of the camp sessions begin with a question. In the Energy and Power session, the question was: How could the world solve its energy problems?

Danielle Paige, Los Altos High School chemistry teacher, joined the STEM Summer Camps teaching team and noted the quality of learning.

“It starts from a question,” she said. “It doesn’t start with the content. We have a problem with how much power we use – how can we fix this? I think that is an exciting way to approach the material and learn.”

The students echoed Paige’s sentiments.

“I really like the hands-on part,” said Trini Inouye, incoming Los Altos High School senior. “It is definitely not something you are doing in a classroom. Even though I am taking physics next year, we are not going to have labs like this.”

Classmate Aryana Salehi seconded Inouye’s views.

“The hands-on activities relate better to our lives,” Salehi said. “They relate better to helping the environment and doing something to help the world instead of just researching it.”

During the Energy and Power session, students measured their households’ energy use in kilowatt meters, and then calculated the carbon footprint.

“I got 13.3 tons, which is a lot of carbon to be leaving in a year,” Salehi said. “We also calculated how many trees it would take to offset that amount – I think it would be 3 to 4 acres.”

One of the exciting things about the STEM Summer Camps, Paige and Murray agreed, was how students were connecting science, technology, engineering and math without realizing that they were using all those disciplines.

“The thing they don’t know is that they are actually being taught math,” Murray said. “We don’t say, ‘Today we are going to have a math lesson.’ Even though it is not obvious, students are taking notes and they are very engaged.”

In addition to changing the way the students approach STEM subjects, the STEM Summer Camps have provided Paige with additional tools and techniques that she hopes to incorporate into her chemistry class next year.

“Too often when I teach high school, because we have very specific things to teach, we are still in the realm of standards,” she said. “Here, every single day seems to be based upon how the students are doing. Every day we are modifying the lessons, lecture or content based on what’s working for the students.”

Primary instructors Oxana Pantchenko and Jamie Orr are dedicated to breaking the male-domination in STEM disciplines.

“My inspiration is to increase the number of women coming into this field,” said Pantchenko, a Los Altos High alumna and instructor in the Foothill engineering department. “I want to bring many more women on board and hope to see many more women in my classes and in engineering overall.”

The Los Altos and Palo Alto Rotary clubs and Los Altos residents Honmai and Joseph W. Goodman are among the donors that fund the $60,000 STEM Summer Camps, which host students at no cost.

For more information, visit foothill.edu/sli/STEM_summer_camps.html.


STEM camp at Foothill College - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Los Altos Town Crier

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