Point Loma students inspire next generation of STEM learners at Dana Middle

Posted: Thursday, February 14th 2019


For the second year in a row, Point Loma became the epicenter of all things science, technology, engineering and math - at least for one day. Under drizzly February skies, Dana Middle School hosted its annual STEM Day event earlier this month, and the crowd was bigger than ever.

Looking around the Dana library, Sarah Thomson paused to take it all in. With robots buzzing about the room, 3-D printers whirring away on new plastic sculptures, and nearly 100 people actively engaged in hands-on learning activities, it was quite a scene. “Well,” she said, looking relieved, “I think it’s looking like a success so far.”

For the Point Loma High School senior, that success was the culmination of months of planning, and a passion for STEM education that began years earlier when she was a Dana Middle student herself.

“I went to Dana, and have always been interested in STEM,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that the younger generation becomes interested in STEM, and goes through the pathway to take classes at Point Loma High School. I found it beneficial in my life, and thought getting people exposed to it at a younger age would be great for society.”

Working with fellow students and staff from the Point Loma community schools, Sarah essentially created the first STEM Day event in 2018 as a project to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award. “We only had 60 students last year, but after that the whole school wanted in,” she recalled. “This year it’s over 100 kids getting to join in.”

This expansion is just one sign that the Point Loma community has embraced the STEM identity in its schools. Fifth and sixth grade students at Dana Middle now begin their journey on the Point Loma STEM pathway by taking classes such as Video Production or Introduction to Coding. From there, they can continue by enrolling in STEM classes at Correia Middle for seventh and eighth grade, before focusing more tightly on a specific field of study at Point Loma High.

“Point Loma is a vertically aligned pathway,” says Dana principal Scott Irwin, who was instrumental in making the STEM Day event come to fruition. “Right now we're 5th through 12th (grade), but it’s reaching earlier grades too. Even our kindergarten students are getting started on STEM with things like Tinker Labs.”

The continuity of the Point Loma STEM pathway offers students exposure to “a little bit of everything” at the younger grades, while giving them the chance to narrow down their focus once at the high school level. For many of the young STEM students at Dana, progression to Point Loma High will mean the opportunity to really dig deeper by enrolling in classes like Computer Graphics, Engineering Design, and Principles of BioMedical Sciences.

 

As the founding student of Dana STEM Day, Sarah Thomson is proud to see that pathway growing.

“When I went to Dana, STEM classes were just starting in Point Loma (High School),” Sarah explained. “Dana had one STEM class, Technology Support Services, and Correia Middle didn’t have any yet. Now Point Loma has STEM in all four grades and they’ve expanded here at Dana and Correia too.”

The success of the STEM pathway is largely the result of active involvement from teachers, including several who were present at Dana for the big event this year.

“Sarah was actually one of my students in seventh grade science at Correia. It’s nice seeing her again, and seeing all the former students here,” says Celestina Gallen, who now teaches the sixth grade STEM elective of coding and introductory medical sciences. “But as a science teacher, my favorite thing about STEM Day is the exposure to high level science that the students are getting.”

That exposure came in the form of over a dozen presentations from Qualcomm, UC San Diego, Sempra Energy, the Division of the State Architect, and more.

"I really enjoy inspiring kids to take an interest in science," said Melissa Torres, an aquarist at the Birch Aquarium. “Events like this let the kids get hands-on and really learn what's involved in aquarium science and marine biology."

Dana technology teacher Shereen Bastani agrees. “It's a lot of hands on stuff, a lot of practical engineering that students can actually see.” Bastani, who is also a former teacher of Sarah’s, has been recognized for inspiring Dana students to engage in STEM through activities such as the Hour of Code and the school’s Technology Support Services class.

In addition to the teachers and outside experts who came to Dana STEM Day, over a dozen Point Loma High students were on hand to facilitate activities and discussions with their younger counterparts. Middle school students flocked to the Pointer Robotics team booth, and eagerly crowded around the 3-D printer as they kept the high schoolers busy with questions.

Carly F., a Point Loma sophomore, was eager to teach a group of sixth graders about robot programming and design. "Robotics is great because you get to learn more about computers behind the scenes and then see how it actually works. So now we’re taking what we’ve learned and teaching them," she said.

The younger students were eager to learn from their high school mentors, who as teenagers were close enough in age to be relatable, but knowledgeable enough to speak and teach from experience.

For Sarah Thomson, those moments are the real highlights.

“There's a lot of planning and work that goes into it, but my favorite part is the day of the event, seeing all the smiling faces and the excitement in all the younger kids.”

Sarah is set to graduate from Point Loma this June, making this is her last year running the event - but she says it's in good hands. Sara Parker, a Point Loma junior who also worked on this year’s event, is set to take over and ensure the legacy lives on in 2020.

Sara will also have the guidance and help of Principal Irwin, who’s eager to keep the momentum building for STEM education.

“STEM Day puts it all together, it shows students what they're starting, and that they're a part of something that's larger, something that means something,” he said. “If these kids learn their strengths, their values, and their interests now when they're just 10 to 12 years old, then we’ll prepare them to pursue their interests and succeed at the highest level.”

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