Mentoring Kids for Science Fairs Untaps STEM Talent

Since 1942, a science fair project has been one of the best learning experiences students can have. Not only are they learning the scientific method, but also the invaluable 21st Century Skills of creativity, critical thinking, communications and confidence that prepare them for life in general.

Researchers have been relying on science fairs for over 75 years as a way to embed scientific thinking and engineering know-how in their students. The ‘40s proved to be science fair nirvana from the Post-War era of industrial innovation and understanding of nuclear energy to space exploration. In those days, students ordered online science kits and took apart toasters to discover STEM principles, and science project design was a 6th grade classroom requisite.

Fast forward to today, and teachers are tapped out. Next Generation Science Standards make it far more challenging for middle school teachers to spend time on mentoring their students through a project idea, development and completion.

In 2018, Orange County developed a work-around — Mentor Match. Volunteers from the Orange County Science and Engineering Fair (OCSEF) and teachers from UC Irvine CalTeach united to pair STEM education student teachers with middle & high school STEM teachers, starting with teaching the teachers. They offered educational support, resources and inspiration to teachers, especially in underserved communities.

“Our mission is to increase the diversity and overall participation in OCSEF,” said Dean Gilbert, OCSEF Outreach Committee Chair. “We have a responsibility to provide equitable experiences for underrepresented students in Orange County in order to “open doors” and remove both actual and perceived obstacles that typically prevent students of color from accessing STEM opportunities and careers.”

Beginning small and focused with 4 schools and 39 students, Mentor Match has grown to 6 schools and over 170 students this year. During the 2020 fall and winter quarters at UCI, over 10 CalTeach mentors learned the ins and outs of teaching science fair at cool locations like the Discovery Cube OC and the Santa Ana Zoo. CalTeach mentors supported teachers from Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Irvine during school, afterschool and virtually.

CalTeach teachers learn about science fair at The Discovery Cube Orange County.

CalTeach Teacher Huy Pham, Westminster High School, on Mentor Match
“…I am grateful for the mentor match program. The resources and guidance have been very helpful to me and WHS in getting the number of students involved with OCSEF. It was always a challenge to get students with my school’s socioeconomic background to “compete” with the “top” tier schools. But your support has helped me get them to understand that science is not a me vs them (the smarter kids) but a me getting better and that it is not just a teacher (who in their mind this is part of my job) but there are others out there supporting their efforts.”

Garden Grove Student Thanks His Teacher

OCSEF Board Member Arnold Shugarman meets with CalTeach teachers at the Santa Ana Zoo

“Thanks for everything! This year was certainly something else with the OCSEF project going on. I hope we can do something similar for AP Physics next year, and that the whole coronavirus issue can resolve itself by then. Again, thank you and Mr. Lopez for doing everything to allow us to reach this far. I’m sure that everyone here will appreciate every lesson and learned from every hurdle we faced throughout the year. Once again, thank you and Mr. Lopez for granting us the privilege for doing this special project as well as the help you both provided for it.”

Community Mentors Play a Big Role in a STEM Village
“One of the primary goals of the Broadcom Foundation is to create equitable access to STEM education,” says Paula Golden, President of the Broadcom Foundation. “It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. This program taps into the creative passions of community mentors who impart their knowledge and excitement to kids who might not be able to gain insight into the coolest aspects of STEM that they can apply to exploration of their personal interests, whatever those interests may be. Mentoring is a powerful tool in creating the STEM Village needed to raise the next generation of scientists, engineers and innovators.”


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