Education Course Pivots to Continue Helping Kids in STEM
By Tim Meehan
For Sinem Siyahhan, change is an opportunity to challenge ourselves to reach new heights.
When the associate professor of educational technology and learning sciences came to Cal State San Marcos in 2014, she set out to change the way her students approached technology as well as teaching science and math to their future primary and secondary students.
When she took over the Education 422 course (Technology Tools for Teaching and Learning), she changed the curriculum and developed a service-learning component where students are actually learning technological tools and creative techniques for teaching STEM topics to children.
And when that learning component – a maker-based STEM afterschool program that relies on hands-on collaborative learning experiences as a method for solving real problems – was in danger because the local school districts it serves began the fall semester with distance learning, she simply created a way to execute the program remotely.
Every change is a challenge.
“Oceanside and Escondido (school districts) wanted to continue the program, so we were able to run a virtual maker-based STEM afterschool program across 25 schools serving grades fourth through eighth,” said Siyahhan, who is also associate director of the Center for Research and Engagement in STEM Education and co-director of the CSUSM-UCSD joint doctoral program in Educational Leadership.
“We have Zoom meetings, Education 422 students work in groups of three to five people, and then they’re assigned to a school site where they work with kids during an assigned date and time.”
The iTeach STEM program started four years ago with six schools in Oceanside and has grown to more than two dozen across the aforementioned school districts that coincidentally serve both ends of Highway 78.
The CSUSM undergrads learn the STEM activities in class with an instructor. The following week, they teach these activities to kids, usually in 60- to 90-minute sessions. The six-week program is a sprint, Siyahhan says, and the most recent session was wrapping up the second week of November.
The program has significant benefits from both ends. It introduces STEM activities to students at ages when interest in science, technology and math usually plunges. At the same time, it gives much-needed experience working with children to candidates for the teacher credential program as well as STEM majors who may someday become single-subject teachers.
“Most of them have never worked in a classroom,” Siyahhan said. “Most of them want to be K-8 teachers and they may not have confidence teaching STEM. So the purpose is for them to build up confidence teaching STEM, gain confidence in teaching and also to learn these technological tools where they’re actually using it in the real world.”
Not only is the focus on actual applications in the classroom, or in this case after school, that real-world approach is evident in the curriculum as well.
The nucleus of the material is on solving real-world problems. One focal point this session was on the United Nations and how that organization pushes important subjects like zero hunger, taking care of the environment and promoting clean oceans.
“We created these activities we call design challenges where students actually create an artifact that solves a real-world problem using technology,” said Siyahhan, who directed one of the first activities this fall to be raising awareness around mask wearing. “What we do is take the UN themes and then turn them into problems to be solved by undergraduate students and kids participating in the afterschool program.
“The kids are learning something not because someone is telling them it’s a good thing to learn, but actually learning because they’re trying to solve a problem they care about. It makes what they’re learning, whether it is the content or the technology tool, meaningful and connected to their world.”
Juan Vazquez is in his final semester at CSUSM as an undergrad in mathematics. Upon graduation, he plans on staying on campus and entering the credential program beginning in fall 2021.
He wants to become a math teacher, perhaps at the local middle school he attended. Amazing is the adjective he chose to describe his experience in the iTeach STEM program.
“Being able to still continue our field experience from home while working with the students has been great,” Vazquez said. “I've learned a lot about what it takes to facilitate a group involving students, how to adapt to on-the-spot changes and benefit from being able to make a student's day when working with the programs online.”
Christian Cozine is also in her final undergrad semester at CSUSM. The kinesiology major is currently studying for the CBEST and CSETs with plans to stay on campus after applying for a spot in the teaching credential program.
She hopes to teach a STEAM subject at the high school or college level.
“I can definitely say that one of the highlights of my experience is making connections with these kids during these unprecedented times,” Cozine said. “I think this program is amazing because I am learning alongside these children about the technology tools that we are trying to use to help evolve their STEM skills such as problem-solving.”
When she was growing up in Istanbul, Turkey, all Siyahhan wanted to do was write novels. Her bachelor’s degree is in comparative literature. Despite being the child of a medical physicist (mom) and oncology doctor (dad), she had no interest in pursuing science as a career.
She published short stories as an undergrad, and then started teaching English as a second language in a low-income neighborhood on the side. That experience changed her perspective so she earned a teaching credential in Turkey before moving to the United States to get a master’s degree and teach.
She quickly realized she didn’t want to be in the classroom but instead wanted to be involved in systemic change.
There’s that word again. If the same old thinking produces the same old results, change is not only desired, it’s mandatory.
“My vision is to transform classroom teaching,” said Siyahhan, who in addition to education majors also recruits STEM majors called learning assistants to work together with teacher education students. “These ideas are not just applicable to afterschool contexts. One of the things I care about personally is to inspire future teachers to re-envision education. If you have 90 minutes (for a class period), you have a choice how you want to frame that 90 minutes. You can definitely do a lecture and worksheets or whatever traditional practices you have. But you can also use that 90 minutes in a different way. Think about how every content is connected to the real world.
“So why not engage kids in those terms? Why not transform your curriculum or present the content to be learned in terms of real-world problems from the get-go so kids are actually more engaged? It’s all about inspiring people. That’s what education is.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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