A targeted group of Eden Prairie Schools students is taking part in fun, free STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activities on non-school days, thanks to a new partnership between EP Schools Community Education and the City of Eden Prairie.
The first event in this program was held on Nov. 23 at Eden Lake Elementary with a day of art projects and physical fitness before Thanksgiving break.
During the second event, on Jan. 16 at Cedar Ridge Elementary, invited students engaged in creative STEM activities, physical fitness and games, social time, and lunch while schools were closed for Martin Luther King Day.
The program has been spearheaded by Juan Quinonez, a youth development specialist at EP Schools Community Education, who has been with EP Schools for the past eight years. “Part of my role is to develop new programming for our out-of-school programs,” he said.
“At this moment, I am mainly focusing on developing partnerships with different institutions and developing programs for families and students who have been historically marginalized and may face many barriers to accessing our out-of-school enrichment programming,” Quinonez added.
This includes district students receiving targeted services, those who may not be able to access or afford STEM-related after-school activities and fee-based city programming, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students.
Quinonez said he worked to identify the students invited to this program with the support of school staff members such as social workers, liaisons and multilingual/English language learner teachers at each elementary school.
Striving to create more equitable opportunities
The idea for the program came last summer when the City of Eden Prairie Youth Sports and Community Programming Recreation department and Eden Prairie Community Education EPIC program partnered to offer free extended summer learning to specific students attending summer programming.
“It was a success and we have decided to continue this partnership throughout the school year, offering free opportunities for students during non-school days,” Quinonez said.
The City of Eden Prairie agreed that the program makes for a natural partnership, as both the city and EP Schools strive to create more equitable opportunities across the board.
“Parks and Recreation’s goal is to serve everyone in our community,” said Tessa Syverson, youth sports and community programming recreation supervisor for the City of Eden Prairie.
“Specifically this year, our focus is on bringing fun and enrichment out into neighborhoods as often as we can,” she added. “We set aside a portion of our budget for this type of activity, and this partnership with Community Education is a great way for us to combine our resources to serve more kids.”
On the Community Ed side, the programming is being funded by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), a federal COVID-19-era program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Public K-12 school districts can decide how they want to spend ESSER dollars to tackle pandemic learning loss and invest in infrastructure and programs to keep schools safe and open.
Architecture, chemistry, robotics, and physical fitness
At the Jan. 16 event, students had a busy day. First, The Works came to the school to teach the children about house design. Students had a chance to create their own 3-D mini models of different types of dwellings, which they were able to take home with them.
Next, volunteer chemistry graduate students from the University of Minnesota’s Women in Science and Engineering Initiative (WISE) taught the children how to make color-changing slime, a hands-on activity that was an extremely messy hit with the kids.
Nora Vail, WISE’s outreach coordinator, said, “We’ve been working with Juan to figure out how we can partner together. This is our first event together, which is really exciting.”
The slime recipe involved glue, water, liquid starch, food coloring, and thermochromic dye. Students also learned the science behind why the slime gained its rubbery consistency and how temperature-induced molecular changes affected its color. Watch a short video of the activity here.
“We can target how much science we’re talking based on the [kids’] age groups,” Vail said. “We talked a little bit about how polymers are made and why they’re important to us.
“We can talk about how polymers are plastics and how everything around us that’s plastic is polymers, and relate that back to the slime. We can talk some very basic organic chemistry with how these pigments are going to change colors. It’s also really fun and hands on.”
Vail said that WISE is working to create a positive association with the field of chemistry. “What I find the most rewarding thing about this is showing kids who may not have encountered a chemistry class that everything they do is chemistry, because that can be a hard thing to grasp,” she said.
“Through these straightforward experiences that are really fun, they’re like, ‘Wow! That’s kind of cool!’ It’s really important to me and WISE to provide these experiences, especially to students who may not have access to hands-on labs.”
After the slime activity, students had a break for lunch. Following that, the City of Eden Prairie’s Parks and Recreation department organized fun physical fitness time with various games and activities in the gym.
Students also had the opportunity to use STEM builders to learn about the fundamentals of robotics, including how to program robots to perform tasks. “This course focuses on [the basics]of robots, various sensors, how to program each sensor, and make a working system,” Quinonez said.
Students demonstrated their learning by performing multiple challenges with the robots. The lesson plan also focused on smart programming/efficient coding to reach the desired outcome, Quinonez said.
Quinonez said planning is already underway for the next event, which will likely include a segment on bridge building with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s STEM education and outreach department.
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