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STEM Takes a Village: A Tulsa Group’s Free Curriculum & Aid Is Expanding Access

From summer programs to educator training to classroom funds, the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance is reducing barriers to STEM opportunities & careers

Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance

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Nine-year-old Marissa Williams and 10-year-old Kason Huerta sit huddled next to each other on the floor of the library at Darnaby Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The temperature outside is nearing 100 degrees on this balmy Thursday in July, but inside, the students at the summer camp are keeping cool — and focusing on coding their robots. 

Marissa and Kason are using their iPad to train their computerized friend, inputting commands that will guide the robot in taking measurements, calculating angles and then using that information to successfully pick up three blocks, carry them a short distance, and drop them back to the surface. 

The two students have some success with the robot picking up one block, but then run into some obstacles as the simulation unfolds. Their summer camp teacher, Kristen Robinson, comes over to help see if she can offer some insight and guidance. 

More than two years since the pandemic disrupted in-person learning and forced a pivot to virtual learning, particularly in the areas of science and technology, students are back interacting with one another, developing critical social skills that have, at times, gone unused amid laptops, e-mails and Zoom sessions. 

It was something Robinson said she noticed early on working with the students during the multi-day camp. During the camp’s first few days, she says, kids were trying to create codes for their robots and when something in the coding didn’t work, they were growing frustrated. 

The frustration would boil over, Robinson says, and, much to her surprise, they would simply quit. 

“No one’s codes were working. They were wanting it to work. so I kind of problem-solved that a little bit. And shared that with them the next day. And so they used that knowledge to rewrite their code and to get everything figured out. And they’re like, ‘oh my gosh, you’re right. Yeah, it does work.’ 

“Normally, I feel like kids would maybe [persevere] and be like, ‘We’re gonna figure this out, right?’”

But sometimes the right answer isn’t the first answer. That’s why this key lesson — that perfection and proficiency takes time and resilience — is a central part of the process being developed and distributed by the Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance. The organization works with schools, students and others to build the capacity of educators in STEM-related fields.

“It includes districts, of course,” said Levi Patrick, executive director of the alliance, also known as TRSA. “We have relationships with our districts, but mostly through classroom teachers across the region.”

The goal, Patrick said, is to reduce the barriers that are keeping STEM out of individual classrooms, and to make sure that instructors have additional training available to them so they can expand their coursework. “Then, we work with many other people beyond the districts — a lot of our work happens with our community partners, but also workforce [advocates and] employers who really want to make sure that they are investing back into the community,” he added.

Which brings us back to the library at Darnaby Elementary. One pillar of the organization’s work over the past decade (the last five as a nonprofit) has been to provide training, grants and even curriculum to community partners so they can host summer learning programs and expand student access to STEM coursework during the summer months. 

“We’re actually able to serve about twice as many student experiences this summer, just by changing that model,” Patrick said. 

TRSA connects a vast universe of partners — from major school districts to Global Gardens, a program for low-income students to learn about science through gardening. 

“Our goal as an alliance is to find ways to bring in more and more partners who can do this work alongside us,” he said. “We believe collectively there’s a need. We know that there are essentially always students on the waiting list at the summer camps. And we know our small organization can’t do it alone. So as an alliance, our vision is to continue to bring people into the fold, resource them, give them support.”

Tulsa was identified as Oklahoma’s first STEM Community in large part thanks to the extensive partnerships and collaborations available with college, university, district, and nonprofit partners, said Lynn Staggs, TRSA’s chief of staff.

At Darnaby Elementary, that support involved providing 3D printers and VEX robotics materials for the robotics coding and building camps, said MacKensie Mathison, the school’s STEM strategist. 

“Their partnership with Darnaby goes even beyond the singular grant: TRSA went above and beyond to provide us with surgical kits for our biomedical camp when we were struggling to acquire the needed materials through our traditional channels,” Mathison said. “This partnership has also included an engaging curriculum, professional development, contacts with other partners, and amazing items such as the Giant Moon and Mars Maps that were lent out for our NASA camp.”

TRSA staff develop the majority of the student experiences that TRSA offers and implement across the community in an effort to overcome the substantial opportunity gap that still hinders access to STEM for girls and Black, Latino, Indigenous, rural and economically disadvantaged students, Staggs said. 

“This past summer, TRSA provided nearly $30,000 in grant funds to expand access to summer STEM camps,” she said. “A two-day training was provided to ensure partners have a shared view of STEM and how powerful learning opportunities can shape beliefs about student identity, their confidence and competence in STEM, and their view of how STEM is used in their world.”

She added that they plan to expand summer STEM camp learning opportunities over the next few years by working closely with neighborhoods around Tulsa to understand their role in overcoming opportunity gaps that continue to persist.

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