Empowering Students and Educators through Service Learning

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR 

Our service-learning education program, Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA), is tackling serious issues. The goal of the fifth annual CASA Institute this year focused on how to equip middle school youth with the appropriate skills to identify a need in the Latino community and then develop an academic service plan to address that need.

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Students from seven states gathered at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month to take on this challenge. And, thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the Institute was able to host attendees from 12 different educational programs in Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Tennessee, Maryland, California, and Florida. Among them were students and teachers from East Austin College Prep, Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, to name a few.

The Cultural Bag

A major part of the CASA Institute included lessons on the service-learning cycle as well as an array of cultural activities. One such activity included the Cultural Bag. To highlight cultural awareness, students were tasked with creating a bag filled with phrases and drawings that displayed their interpretations of their own identity and culture.

“A cultural bag is something that each of us carries around all the time. The content of our bag defines who we are,” said Magdalena Mireles, NCLR California Regional Office Manager.

“Your race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, level of education, or religion are all traits that can go in your bag.” Mireles led the youth track in this year’s Institute.

As students filled their bags with their identity traits, they began to think about how their culture shaped their personality and life experiences.

Fun and Robotics

 Los Angeles made a perfect setting for a movie screening. Attendees were treated to a private viewing of the highly acclaimed documentary Underwater Dreams, written and directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña.

Underwater Dreams tells the story of sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and ended up defeating engineering powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their competition. Not only were these boys only in high school when they entered the college competition but they were also living in poverty and faced many struggles to which several CASA attendees could relate.

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Drawing on inspiration from the film, students were guided by DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls in building their own robots. DIY Girls works with young girls and focuses on helping them be successful in technology and engineering. One of their founders is also a Latina!

The interactive lesson guided students in using a motor, a battery, and a container to build a motorized robot that they could then take home.

The CASA Institute was a great learning experience for both students and educators. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and for many it was there first time visiting Los Angeles. The change of setting and the new activities students and teachers participated in left them motivated and inspired.

“Super excited to see all the great ideas we will bring back to school!” said Angelica Lara of East Austin College Prep.

We’re hopeful educators like Lara left Los Angeles ready to take the steps and use the lessons they learned to support their students throughout the year in engaging with the CASA curriculum.

We’re Putting a Premium on STEM Education!

By Juliana Ospina Cano,  Escalera STEM Manager, NCLR

By 2020, six years from now, more than two million science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs will go unfilled if youth are not prepared to succeed in a competitive STEM-driven economy. At the moment, Latinos represent 15% of the overall workforce, but only 7% of the STEM workforce.

Latino underrepresentation is directly linked to lack of exposure and students’ attitudes toward STEM education. Too often, we hear students say “Math is too hard;” “I was told I don’t have what it takes;” or “I like science but I don’t think I’m smart enough.” These comments are a reflection of the STEM-deficit mindset that lives in the Latino community. To address part of the STEM disparity, NCLR has formalized a STEM readiness program that seeks to expose Latino youth to STEM disciplines. Aligned to the Common Core State Standards and culturally relevant to Latino students, NCLR STEM programs lead students to develop a STEM mindset, one that encourages problem-solving, creativity, and innovation.


NCLR Affiliate Youth Development Inc. learning how to train families on Padres Comprometidos con CHISPA at Albuquerque’s Explora museum.

NCLR STEM currently houses four main programs to bolster youth’s interest in STEM disciplines. With support from the National Science Foundation and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, CHISPA (Children Investigating Science with Parents and Afterschool) engages students in early STEM education. In collaboration with ASPIRA, NCLR works with 19 Affiliates and 11 national science museums to provide culturally relevant STEM curricula in elementary schools across the country. This innovative program blends science instruction with a family engagement piece. With this two-fold approach, CHISPA exposes students to STEM after school and parents through the newly developed family engagement curriculum Padres Comprometidos con CHISPA. The programs address two of the main challenges in STEM education: early exposure to STEM and family engagement.

At the middle school level, NCLR focuses on STEM family education with its Padres Comprometidos, STEM at Home program. The program introduces Latino families to STEM education and cultivates interest by tapping into parents’ background knowledge. It’s not uncommon to meet Latino parents who are immediately turned off by math and science, as many of them had negative experiences in their own schooling. Padres Comprometidos, STEM at Home reintroduces STEM by building relevant awareness by providing concrete examples of STEM in our daily lives. In this program, families regain a positive attitude toward these disciplines while learning critical skills on how to successfully advocate for their children at school.

Puentes, NOLA, and AAMA representatives sharing the Escalera STEM curriculum to fellow Escalera peers at the Summer Escalera training.

Puentes, NOLA, and AAMA representatives sharing the Escalera STEM curriculum to fellow Escalera peers at the Summer Escalera training.

As an extension of the Escalera Program, Escalera STEM exposes high school juniors and seniors to STEM disciplines through inquiry-based instruction, exploratory activities, and engagement with STEM professionals. The newly developed STEM curriculum validates Latino’s attitudes toward STEM education and challenges STEM disengagement and family expectations as students analyze relevant data regarding current and future market projections. Given the overwhelming request to expand the Escalera STEM network, NCLR is pleased to announce a STEM education training this month in Houston, Texas.

The last component of the NCLR STEM initiative includes NCLR’s first STEM Youth Summit. This event will bring more than 150 high school students, STEM professionals, and community partners with the purpose of exposing students to STEM education.

As stated by President Obama, “American students must move from the middle to the top of the pack in science in math” and in order to achieve this goal, students need to have equitable and accessible resources to enable them to navigate their current STEM world, and the possibilities that lie ahead. NCLR invites its Affiliates to join the STEM network to boost and develop a competitive Latino-STEM-oriented workforce.

For more information regarding NCLR STEM education or to bring a program to your community, contact NCLR STEM Manager Juliana Ospina Cano at jospina@nclr.org. @EscaleraSTEM.