Despite rolling online, 5C Science Bus connects young students with experience in STEM

A young girl learning online
(Mariana Duran • The Student Life)

The weekend before the Claremont Colleges announced they were sending students home in March 2020, Pomona Unified School District elementary students joined with 5C student volunteers for Science Day, an annual event hosted by the 5C Science Bus full of “experiments, demonstrations and fun,” according to the club’s website

Now, over a year later, the club has hosted Science Day again — but for the first time, it was completely virtual. 

“Logistically, [it] works very differently,” Science Day coordinator Marycarmen Montanez CM ’22 said. Instead of ordering a bus to bring students and volunteers together for in-person experiments, she had to figure out how to ship materials to the students’ homes and host the event over Zoom. Despite the changes, however, the club still saw over 70 students sign up and eventually had to cap the sign-ups, according to Montanez.

In pre-pandemic times, in addition to Science Day, student volunteers with Science Bus would come together to offer Friday science lessons throughout the semester. Volunteers would develop science-based curricula, gather necessary supplies and take vans to local elementary schools to teach the curricula through fun activities and hands-on experiments. 

A crucial aspect of the club’s programming historically has been ensuring students have close access to both their volunteer instructors and the science projects themselves, according to club president Alex Nghiem HM ’22.

“It’s really important to give students time to actually ask the questions that they need to ask about science,” Nghiem said. “Science is all about exploration and discovery. And I think that what Science Bus can bring [that] the regular classroom can’t is the ability for students to be able to really explore sort of on their own and have a lot of fun with the material.”

This principle is one that continued to guide the club as it pivoted to virtual programming for the 2020-2021 academic year. While they endeavored to provide online lessons last semester, club leaders faced difficulties when coordinating with the local schools they had partnered with in the past.

“Science Bus is not exactly schools’ or students’ number one priority,” Nghiem said. “And a lot of schools, rightfully so, are super busy trying to figure out all kinds of other logistical problems … so it’s been really hard getting people’s time to think about the kinds of things that need to get thought about for Science Bus to exist.”

To combat the challenges they faced trying to operate virtually, the club leaders decided to change many aspects of how the club operates going into the spring semester.

“Now, [Science Bus] is open to anybody who would like to sign up, [and] we shared that as much as we could in any platforms that would allow the general public to know that this was something that was available to them and that we would love if they could join us for the one-hour session,” staff mentor Gabriela Gamiz said.

As a result of the shift, this semester the club has participants from all over California and beyond — with one student thousands of miles away in New Hampshire — as opposed to the usual participant pool of those from the Pomona Unified School District.

Another major change is the difference in activities the club offers, since much of their in-person programming relies on physically going into classrooms. 

“Because the lessons in person were all about doing an experiment with the kids, we’ve had to really alter what those smaller Friday lessons are like, since we can’t do that,” Montanez said.

This semester, Nghiem said the compromise was to offer lessons via Zoom, with students watching videos and participating in online activities related to science. Lessons cover a range of topics, such as “Climate Change and the Oceans,” “Animal Cognition” and “Five Senses” and incorporate a variety of activities, including games, guided discussions and videos that directly connect to the topic of the week.

“The goal is to offer a lot of time in which students can speak directly to a volunteer who knows a lot about the science,” he said. “So rather than having our focus be on doing really hands-on activities, the focus shifted to at least offering a lot of time for students to interact with volunteers.”

Despite the differences that come with the format, club members have been happy to find that many participants have retained their enthusiasm for the programming and curriculum.

“It’s touching a few students’ lives and their passion and interest for STEM.”—Gabriela Gamiz.

“The elementary school student engagement has been overall quite good,” Nghiem said. “Some students [are] very hard to read because they leave their cameras off, but a lot of students have their cameras on and are very engaged, and it’s really exciting to see.”

For some, the sustained engagement levels point to the importance of offering opportunities like this for close STEM-based learning experiences.

“When I get feedback from parents saying, ‘My child has really enjoyed this and looks forward to returning back Friday to Friday, even though they’re Zoomed out,’ I think that’s an amazing testimony about why the presence of this program is needed — it’s touching a few students’ lives and their passion and interest for STEM,” Gamiz said.

For Gamiz, who grew up in the Pomona area, this importance is amplified by a personal connection. In middle school, she participated in a similar school outreach program hosted by Harvey Mudd College that gave her hands-on math and science experiences and fueled her interest in subjects like engineering and biology.

“Could [Science Bus] be a seed that helps a young scholar say, ‘Yes, this is something I would love to pursue. I would love to find out more — What is it about? Where could I go for more information?’” Gamiz said. “And hopefully it speaks to their mind and to their heart like it did to me many, many years ago.”

Although the road to transitioning Science Bus programs online has had quite a few bumps, volunteers and students with the program have continued to work towards their goal of fostering a space where students can freely explore various STEM concepts.

“I’m just really proud of how we’ve been able to adapt and provide the students … with an opportunity to have a safe community to learn science,” Montanez said. “And if not [that], to just have [a] one-hour distraction from the world and feel that there are other kids and other Science Bus teachers there with them for that hour to socialize and have a good time.”

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