A fifth grade boy who hasn’t been engaged in science class suddenly perks up when the after-school lesson involves a visit to a local bakery where he gets to use a mortar and pestle to grind wheat berries into flour for bread making. It turns out the boy helps his Latina grandmother grind corn at his home. Instantly, science is connected to something he can relate to, and a light bulb blinks on.
A third grade girl from the Dominican Republic visits a local tire shop where she gets to use shiny tools like pressure gauges and tire tread measuring devices, and a connection is made in her young mind that math is all around her and much more than the inky symbols printed on worksheets in a classroom.
A group of elementary students learn fractions at a Mexican bakery where they slice up pastries, weigh the portions on a scales, then literally eat what they’ve learned. A weightlifter pumping iron at a local gym fascinates students, and a science lesson about force and weight is driven home. At a Laundromat, students get to disassemble a washing machine and learn about pulleys. A local car dealership serves cookies while students inspect a car that mechanics have put on display in preparation for an after-school lesson
These are all examples from an after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning program/teacher preparation course/research project called FIESTAS that was launched four years ago by OSU College of Education faculty SueAnn Bottoms and Kathryn Ciechanowski and 4-H faculty Ana Lu Fonseca. Since then, the project has grown into a multi-faceted en
terprise that could become a national model for successful STEM learning and teacher education
FIESTAS stands for Families Involved in Educational Sociocultural Teaching and STEM. As the name implies, it is about engaging students from diverse sociocultural backgrounds in STEM learning by involving their families and tapping local businesses to serve as real-world classrooms and hands-on labs.
The experiences help students – and future teachers – see how STEM subjects are woven throughout local communities. FIESTAS is also demonstrating that successful STEM teaching depends on a wide range of factors that go well beyond the walls of any school classroom.
FIESTAS started when Bottoms and Ciechanowski partnered with two 4-H after-school clubs and later the local Boys and Girls Club of Corvallis. Their goal was two-fold: 1) expose underserved youth to STEM related projects to increase interest in STEM, and 2) engage preservice teachers (PSTs) in culturally and linguistically diverse settings.
Four years later, the program has grown exponentially and is benefitting students, parents, local businesses, and the 50-plus PSTs who work with students in two dual-immersion elementary schools each year.
“When we started FIESTAS, it was just two after-school clubs, but it has grown all these tentacles and taken on a life of its own because it really resonated with people,” says Bottoms. “Our PSTs find it very rewarding, and parents like it because they hear what’s going on with their kids. It’s so exciting it keeps me going and energizes me.”
Part of what excites Ciechanowski and Bottoms is seeing how the kids – and the PSTs – connect with and learn from the local businesses.
“The community response to this has been amazing,” says Ciechanowski. “There is all this expertise in the community, and when we do a better job connecting teachers to this expertise, we are better at teaching STEM.”
The PSTs meet briefly with the community partners ahead of time to frame the lessons and offer pedagogical expertise, like how to set up activities at stations for hands-on learning.
“And then the businesses just run with it,” says Ciechanowski. “Many are surprised by how well the kids behave, but that’s one of the keys: if you engage children in real-world, authentic ways, they are learning, because they’re not just reading about it – they’re doing it in context.”
By working with people in the local community who use math and science every day, the students see STEM integrated in everyday life, and not something separate.
“We might not identify these individuals as scientists or mathematicians, but they are using science and math every day, so we help kids see that connection,” Bottoms says.
FIESTAS also has a diversity component aimed at helping budding teachers experience first-hand how kids from different sociocultural backgrounds learn in different ways. The program is intentionally targeted at schools with diverse student populations.
“Teachers are generally white, female, and monolingual,” says Bottoms. “We help them broaden their understandings by creating equitable experiences so teachers teach better because they understand kids might not have backgrounds like theirs. Diversity is big and complex and involves religion, race, socioeconomic background, and much more, and as a teacher, you have to understand that the community of children you’re teaching reflects this complex diversity.”
This diversity is also connected to families, which is why FIESTAS reaches out to include the families of the students.
The mother of a Fourth Grade girl told the researchers how her daughter, who ‘hated’ math and refused to do her homework, is now telling people she wants to be an engineer when she grows up. The mother credits the change to FIESTAS, which actively works to communicate with families and sometimes sends videos of the children engaged in the local lessons home with students so their parents can learn, too.
“Parents are partners in this,” says Bottoms. “I always tell the PSTs that kids come with families, and every family is not like your family.”
FIESTAS also has a research component. In addition to the undergraduate PSTs, doctoral and master’s students are involved in data collection and analysis, and Bottoms and Ciechanowski have presented their findings at conferences and published in journals.
“This is a community based research project,” says Ciechanowski.
Bottoms uses the term, “praxis,” or the intersection of theory and practice. “This is what a theory looks like when you put it into practice – an innovative way of preparing teachers to do science and math.”
The researchers have learned that exposing students to STEM in their own community sparks interest and ignites passion, and that STEM learning works best when rooted in the sociocultural relevant contexts of children’s lives. The program is also helping develop teachers who have a deeper understanding of STEM teaching, diversity, community learning, and more.
“We see from our own analysis of the PSTs who are part of FIESTAS that the experience is shifting their perspectives and making a difference in how they approach teaching,” Bottoms says.
The program has been so successful and grown so fast that Bottoms and Ciechanowski are searching to find funding to hire a program coordinator and to support new doctoral students. They believe FIESTAS is so unique and successful that it could be replicated in other communities across the country.
“We’re underfunded because FIESTAS is so unique that it doesn’t fit into a box,” Bottoms says.
Although programs in other parts of the country include some of the “tentacles” of FIESTAS – activities like family math and science nights, no other program incorporates so many different threads or maintains such long-term connections with community partners, Ciechanowski says.
“The difference between our program and others is the level of complexity and the long-term aspect of FIESTAS,” says Ciechanowski. “Universities are often criticized for going out into a community to do research and then returning without necessarily giving anything back to the community. What we’re trying to do differently with FIESTAS is build long-term relationships that benefit all partners.”