At Hartnell College, a NASA-sponsored science academy turns Monterey County school kids into budding scientists. Here’s hoping federal math doesn’t ground them in their mission.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
Angelica Meza’s adventures in science began on a dirt road by a lettuce field shortly after she watched Star Wars for the first time.
She had the tools of a 5-year-old: tape, her white-and-purple two-wheeler, and some empty lettuce boxes she’d salvaged from the farmland near her home. But more importantly, she had a big idea.
She was going to build the Millennium Falcon.
She called it the “Mini-Falcon,” a faithful adaptation – in spirit, at least – of the famous smuggling spaceship from the original Star Wars movies. The bulky contraption was more aesthetic than functional. Meza taped the flattened boxes together and rigged them in a loop around the bike. She clumsily pedaled off in her new ship for a quick takeoff. Seconds later, the inevitable landing. She lost control and flew straight into a dirt pile by an irrigation ditch.
Experimentation – it’s part of the scientific process.
Now, the 26-year-old is a coordinator at Hartnell College’s Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy, a program that provides free after-school programs and workshops to foster kids’ interest in science and math.
The academy (or SEMAA, for short) is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which oversees 14 similar programs around the nation. Hartnell’s is the only one on the Western seaboard. In fact, it’s the only one in California. And, it’s located in the heart of one of the most economically deprived areas in Monterey County: East Salinas.
NASA rocketed into the Alisal in 2011, making Hartnell one of the SEMAA program’s newest sites. The academy’s goal is to bring more diversity into the science and math world.
“We take kids whose parents grew up picking strawberries in the fields and we turn them into research scientists,” says Andy Newton, director of Hartnell’s Science and Math Institute. “They get to learn by doing, then they get to see the different applications of disciplines, whether it’s aerospace engineering or programming.”
Like Meza transforming a bike into a spaceship, the program also offers an imaginative lesson: a way to see things from a different perspective.
“Being a doctor, being a scientist, being an engineer is not unattainable, no matter who you are or where you come from,” says Jomill Wiley, SEMAA’s national director.
It’s an honorable initiative. And it’s one that, like so many other government sponsored programs, now faces the ugly specter of budget cuts.
Last year, NASA made headlines not only for the kinds of scientific achievements that turned geeks into pop culture stars (the landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars, for example, spawned endless memes and drew marriage proposals for a flight director better known as “Mohawk Guy”), but also for the massive proposed cuts the government wanted to make to its budget.
That hammering can be seen in how much money NASA allocates to education programs like SEMAA. In the past, SEMAA sites worked with $250,000 a year, says Wiley. Now some are given less than $100,000. Hartnell is just halfway through its initial three-year NASA contract, and there’s a possibility the money will end with that agreement.
“At this point, NASA is looking to redesign SEMAA to retain the most valuable components of the project while retaining all sites with a lessened amount of financial support,” Wiley says. “Closing sites that can’t sustain [themselves] is a last resort.”
Hartnell needs a game plan. And soon.
• : • : •
Your mission: To eat in space. That’s what a third-grader might be tasked with in a SEMAA class.
The beauty of SEMAA, advocates say, is that it makes learning look like play time. The buzzword they like to use is “hands-on,” and that hands-on starts when SEMAA staff reach out to local teachers and train them in a special curriculum created by NASA.
Then the teachers implement after-school programs in their own classrooms.
Eating in space isn’t as easy as it sounds, says Jessica Taniguchi, a teacher at Oscar Loya Elementary School in Salinas.
Kids are challenged with making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sans gravity. That means they have to think of every scenario – including the possibility of the bread floating away if they don’t fasten it down. While the kids are busy keeping their sandwiches under control, Taniguchi teaches a lesson on astronaut food. It’s a good and real-world application: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield just last week appeared in a video posted on the Canadian Space Agency YouTube channel showing how he makes and eats his PBJ in space. (Hint: tortillas instead of bread, and a cool little tool he calls “space scissors.”)
Another lesson Taniguchi uses is about living and working in space. The third-graders perform “astronaut training,” in which, for example, they put on big work gloves and try to open a Band-Aid and stick it on their arm.
“I’m sure the students define their SEMAA class as a fun time instead of learning,” Taniguchi says. “Of course they are learning. But it’s better disguised.”
Of the 1,700 kindergarten to 12th grade students who participated in Hartnell’s SEMAA program last school year, the majority of those students were Latino and a majority were low-income, says Maggie Melone-Echiburú, director of SEMAA at Hartnell.
SEMAA is designed to attract underrepresented kids to science, technology, engineering and math fields. That’s why some SEMAA sites, like historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore, are institutions that primarily serve minorities.
Latinos, African-Americans and women are vastly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields. For example, in high-paying jobs like architecture and engineering management, Latinos only make up 5 percent of the workforce, according to a report by Excelencia in Education, a Washington-based advocacy group for Hispanic students.
But bringing diversity to STEM fields isn’t just about equal opportunity. It’s about the country’s ability to compete in a quickly changing world.
American children ranked 21st of 30 countries in science literacy and 25th of 30 in math literacy, according to a 2006 international survey. American universities graduate far fewer STEM majors than the rest of the world: 17 percent of U.S. degrees go to STEM, compared to an international average of 26 percent.
These dismal rankings are coupled with a dramatic shift in the country’s demographics. In California, Latinos are set to outnumber whites by the middle of next year. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Latinos will comprise 30 percent of the nation’s population by 2040.
As baby boomers retire and more jobs open up in STEM fields, there may not be enough trained candidates to fill them, says Gloria Crisp, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Texas, San Antonio.
It may be up to Latinos to fill the gap, she says.
That might be a challenge, considering the trends in colleges. A report compiled by Crisp and another University of Texas professor finds only 16 percent of Latino students who began college in 2004 with a STEM major completed a STEM degree, as opposed to 25 percent of white students.
“What we have to do as educators is get the word out there that there are opportunities for Latinos,” Melone-Echiburú says. “If people knew what was out there, they’d be doing it.”
SEMAA is one of those opportunities. It’s not just for Latinos, though, she emphasizes. Kids from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are welcome to participate, and do.
Most of the classes take place at students’ home campuses, but some happen at Hartnell’s Aerospace Education Laboratory, part of the community college’s tech-driven Alisal campus. The aerospace lab – valued at $200,000 by NASA – is where kids come for special weekend classes or on field trips.
An appropriate word to describe the lab: cool. Walk in, and the first thing you see are out-of-this world pictures, a hefty model space shuttle and advanced-looking machinery.
The lab is lined with computers displaying adventure scenes on the monitors: a dusty Mars landscape, a pilot in a cockpit, a vision of Earth from outer space. Installed on each work station are a host of programs, like one that teaches kids how to make dozens of kinds of paper airplanes. Against one wall is a low-gravity experimentation chamber and against another is a wind-tunnel.
The jewel of the room is the flight simulator, an approximately 70-inch flat-screen monitor hooked up to a joystick and pedals and programmed to simulate a flight from Monterey to Salinas along Highway 68.
On a recent Saturday morning at the lab, Meza introduces herself to a group of four elementary and middle-school students. The children – three of them home-schooled – are part of one of Hartnell SEMAA’s free robotics classes offered four times a year. The students will be building their own Mars rover from a Lego Mindstorm kit.
First, though, a lesson.
“How many of you have computers at home?” Meza asks. They all raise their hands.
“Keep your hands up if you have one,” she instructs, her own hand in the air.
“How about two?” Hands stay up.
“Three?” All the hands come down, except Meza’s.
“Four?” Her hand remains high.
She counts a bit higher then pauses, dramatically.
“Thirty-two,” she finally says.
“Wow,” says a kid. The students are impressed. But there’s a catch.
“My car has a computer, my fridge has a computer, turns out my microwave has a computer,” Meza says. “You guys have to get away from the concept that a computer is just this” – she gestures at one of the lab desktops – “or a laptop.”
In other words, technology is everywhere, even where kids don’t notice it. This lesson in perspective may be one of Meza’s own teaching moments, but it’s critical to SEMAA’s mission. The biggest shift for students may not just be in how they view science and math problems, but in how they view themselves.
As a Latina, Meza is on her way to holding a special place in the STEM world. Though women hold nearly half of all the jobs in the U.S. economy, they hold less than a quarter of STEM jobs.
Meza, also a Hartnell Student, is working on transferring to CSU Monterey Bay to study software engineering. Her love of machinery, she says, comes from the time she spent riding Caterpillar tractors with her father, a field worker, while he was mulching land.
“If I’m working this hard, it’s so you guys can have a better future,” she remembers her dad saying.
Some of the kids in Salinas growing up in similar situations don’t see that, Meza says. They don’t think they should aspire to much. Migrant students, for example, don’t have much of a connection to school because they’re always traveling, she says.
SEMAA, Meza thinks, helps students discover something universal: science.
“It makes them feel better about themselves,” she says. “It makes them feel better in their studies.”
• : • : •
As optimistic as SEMAA advocates are about the program, significant challenges lay ahead.
After three years, the site is expected to find a way to operate without NASA money, says Wiley, the program’s national director. But that doesn’t always happen. Historically, most sites have continued to rely on significant amounts of NASA funding, she says.
Depending on the budget outlook in the future, NASA may have to cut off money to sites that can’t make it on their own – that “last resort” Wiley had warned about.
Hartnell hopes to be self-sustaining by the time its NASA contract award ends, and it has created a task force to look into a funding plan. Last school year, the local SEMAA site got a $20,000 grant from The Community Foundation for Monterey County, and a few weeks ago local philanthropist Joanne Taylor Johnson created a $30,000 SEMAA endowment for the school.
Looking forward, the goal is to court local philanthropists and move on to powerful investors an hour up the road in Silicon Valley.
“Think of all the technology here that could be supporting us,” Melone-Echiburú says.
While other SEMAA sites have drawn funding from partnerships and corporate donations – sometimes pulling in almost half the operating budget – this kind of support usually only lasts two to three years, Wiley says.
“Then sites are right back to the drawing board,” she says. Of the 15 SEMAA sites, 11 of them still rely on significant NASA funding. Over the years there have been 31 total sites, but many closed due to poor performance or the inability to sustain.
Meanwhile, the budget cuts are already starting to sting locally.
This winter, NASA gave the SEMAA sites less money for their winter and spring sessions, meaning soon Melone-Echiburú may have to contract fewer teachers to do the program. Teachers – who run the classroom-based program on their own time – are paid a stipend of between $500 to $900.
Fortunately, Hartnell SEMAA saves some costs by working with the Migrant Education program, which provides its own teachers. But some schools that want to continue SEMAA in the spring may not have the chance.
As the SEMAA program gains traction – the program is so popular at Lincoln Elementary School in Salinas that there are two teachers running the classes – Melone-Echiburú doesn’t want to have to turn people away.
SEMAA contracts 10 teachers right now, but in the spring, that number could be cut to three.
“We don’t want to say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have room for you,’” she says.
• : • : •
Back at the aerospace lab, Meza is still on the subject of computers.
“Would it be wrong to say my dog is a computer?” she asks.
“It depends,” says 9-year-old Daniel DeMaster, who’s wearing a Star Wars T-shirt. “If it’s like… a robotic dog… ” he speculates.
The conversation lingers on the idea of robotic dogs, and then moves on to robotic people, before Meza lets the students loose on the Lego Mars rovers.
“Yay!” says DeMaster, a student at Steinbeck Elementary School.
The fourth-grader heads to a computer station and puts on a pair of headphones. A video pops up with instructions on how to build the robot.
DeMaster hunches over his set of blocks, organizing them and trying to find the right pieces.
“It should be longer, I think,” he mumbles, deep in concentration.
Soon his robot is complete.
When DeMaster grows up, he wants to be a rocket scientist. He says he’ll build his own robot one day. A real one, with an important mission.
“A robot that could do my chores and my homework, so I could play,” he says.
A robot dog to do it all? Maybe in the not-so-distant future, he will make that happen. But at least for now, he and other students involved in SEMAA are learning how to look at things a little differently.