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Cal State LA Verizon enrichment program offers hands-on STEM learning for local youth

September 22, 2022

Cal State LA News Service

Middle school students work on a hands-on lesson during the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program at Cal State LA.
Photo: Middle school students work on a hands-on lesson during the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program at Cal State LA. (Credit: J. Emilio Flores/Cal State LA)

Local middle school youth delved into the world of virtual reality, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and robotics as part of a hands-on STEM enrichment program at Cal State LA.

About 150 sixth, seventh, and eighth graders took part in the three-week Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers camp over the summer, coding computer games, programming robots and creating 3D models of a virtual world and coins for an imagined city of Atlantis.

The Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program aims to provide students in under-resourced communities with the opportunity to discover new problem-solving skills and gain exposure to careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

“This camp really allows students to lose some of the fear around taking courses that sound like they’ll be difficult and inspiring the kids in our communities to feel that they can succeed and dream,” said Bianca Guzmán, executive director of the Pathway Programs Office at Cal State LA.

The Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program, which is in its fifth year at Cal State LA, is organized through the Pathway Programs Office, which focuses on increasing college enrollment and graduation to support education, career and life success.

For three weeks in late June and early July, classrooms inside Cal State LA’s Engineering and Technology building transformed into virtual reality, robotics and coding laboratories. The middle schoolers from schools largely on Los Angeles’ Eastside learned about and worked together on hands-on projects on topics such as immersive media, digital production, coding, AI and robotics.   

Lessons are taught by credentialed teachers from local schools who have expertise and interest in STEM, said Mauricio Castillo, associate professor in the Department of Technology in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology, who serves as a co-faculty director of the program.

The program exposes local youth to the variety of career possibilities in the STEM fields, empowers them to believe they can strive for that path, and helps show the students the concepts can be interesting and rewarding, Castillo added.

“It says, ‘Look, you can do this’,” Castillo said. “Everything now involves technology—you don’t have to only be an engineer.”

Emma Keys, a seventh grader at Hollenbeck Middle School’s STEMM Magnet Academy in Boyle Heights, worked behind a computer during the camp, programming a colorful block game that allowed players to guess the name of an animal based on a clue.

“I liked it a lot and got to learn a lot of new things, especially about 3D printing and virtual and augmented reality,” said Keys, her eyes growing wide as she spoke. “It also helped me become a better coder.” She aspires to be a pediatric surgeon one day.

In a nearby classroom, Aidan Hernandez, an eighth grader at El Sereno Middle School, worked with fellow students to program a car to navigate obstacles, troubleshooting the wheels and using a phone app to program routes for the car.

Hernandez, who hopes to become a software engineer, said the camp was fun and that he learned about different features of 3D modeling. “It helped me learn more about programming and why I like it,” he said. 

In addition to the hands-on lessons, the local middle schoolers also took part in life skills sessions, including mock interviews, with Cal State LA and high school student and mentors. You can learn more about how the program combines technology lessons with emotional intelligence and career preparation exercises in this Verizon Innovative Learning video.

“This program is so important because during middle school, a lot of students are starting to decide their courses for high school and absorbing stereotypes about careers,” said Jessica Morales-Chicas, co-faculty director for the Verizon Innovative Learning STEM Achievers program at Cal State LA.

The enrichment program can help the middle school students be motivated to persist through school and higher learning and think about the different paths they can take, said Morales-Chicas, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies in Cal State LA’s Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services.

“It allows them to realize they can be leaders in that space,” Morales-Chicas said. “If they are given the ability to create and innovate early on, imagine what they can create 20 years from now if they believe they can?”

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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.

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