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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators

Virtual Science Nights

Building equity and access to STEM role models for elementary students

By Soomin Chao | January | February 2022
The year 2020 brought to light an international health crisis, an economic downturn and political unrest, but none of these events could stop Arlene Bitely Elementary School from finding the silver linings of the opportunity presented during these challenging times. Like many public schools across the state and nation, Bitely leveraged the benefits of a more ubiquitous presence of video conferencing technology, a tool that was less available to elementary-aged students before the pandemic. Capitalizing on the distance learning model of instructional delivery, students and their families were provided easier access to prominent thought-leaders in the STEM community by hosting a Virtual Science Night event.
Students from TK-6th grade met and interacted with current researchers from world-renowned institutions, such as Caltech, NASA/JPL, the International Space Station, Above, the Planetary Society and the Huntington Library to talk about science, technology, engineering and math from the safety and comfort of their home. This asynchronous virtual event was coordinated for the first time in San Gabriel Valley last October. Students and families enjoyed a second opportunity to gather via Zoom for Bitely’s second annual Virtual Science Night on November 4, 2021.
Bitely Elementary is a diverse community located in the city of Rosemead, adjacent to Monterey Park, serving approximately 450 students from transitional kindergarten through grade 6. Bitely also serves two federally funded Head Start programs, and is demographically represented by two distinct populations: Latinx students make up 44 percent and Asian American students make up 43 percent. Fifty-seven percent of all students are English Language Learners, and 17 percent of the student body receives special education services (Chao, 2021). As a Title I high achieving school, Bitely is committed to providing students with a 21st century education, including experiences that educate and motivate students in exploring future college and career pathways in STEM fields. The National Science Foundation predicts that minorities will make up more than half of the adult population in the United States by the year 2060 (Hamrick, 2021). Bridging the gender and race gap in the field of science, and in STEM, for traditionally underrepresented populations within our communities today may help ensure a STEM-ready workforce in the future.
Science Night attendees—students, families and community members of Garvey School District — had the chance to step into a virtual world where technology served as the vehicle for them to be transported to research laboratories of some of the world’s most elite scientists and engineers.
In collaboration with innovative and dynamic scientists, researchers and educators in the field of science and technology, Bitely teachers hosted nearly 200 students and their families to hear the stories of 14 presenters from diverse professional and personal backgrounds. Each scientist or engineer presenter was paired with Bitely teaching staff, and each pair led a variety of events through Zoom: live laboratory tours, interview panels and discussions and hands-on science experiments and activities from home. Materials for labs and activities for this event were funded by the school’s PTA.
“In our San Gabriel Valley Communities, there are doctors, engineers, and computer programmers,” said Chief Supervisor of Los Angeles County, Kathryn Barger, in her welcoming remarks. “Before they had those jobs, they were in school just like you! We need brave, smart, caring young men and women like you, our future leaders, in those jobs.”
Bitely’s Science Night presenters highlighted the lives and accomplishments of women, people of color and multilingual STEM professionals through synchronous live discussions, demonstrations, and interactive projects. These co-curricular and extra-curricular learning and engagement opportunities added richness and context to what is typically depicted in classroom textbooks.
Representative Judy Chu, member of the United States Congress, provided encouragement in her opening remarks to Bitely Science Night attendees. “I am so thrilled to see Bitely students getting the chance to learn about STEM, because I know how important these opportunities are to our country and our future. Just look at today’s event — it was past investments in STEM that helped train this current generation of engineers and coders who made this virtual world possible.”
This event highlighted Garvey School District’s visionary initiative to integrate innovative STEM programs as a way to spark curiosity in the minds of students and to expose them to potential college and career pathways in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The evening’s lineup of Science Night presenters distinctly showcased the representation of women in science, people of color, and multilingual STEM professionals. In a unique display, the rich diversity of the student population was mirrored by that of the professionals who volunteered their time, further helping students picture their future in these roles.
Plan your own Science Night with these tips:
  • Reach out to local community colleges and universities for student volunteers. For example, Caltech’s division is called the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach.
  • Contact local libraries, museums, and observatories for volunteer demonstrators, lectures, docents and researchers.
  • Enlist the support of your PTA for the following:
  • Funds for household lab materials, to ensure all students have access and can participate.
  • Volunteer Zoom monitors/supervisors (in addition to teacher volunteers).
  • Assistance advertising the event.
  • Consider creating a Science Night-themed Zoom background for the Zoom supervisors in each room, with an embedded QR code scavenger hunt. The QR code for our event linked to a FlipGrid video opportunity for students to share feedback about that particular science activity. This will help with the following:
  • Tracking the number of participants.
  • Creating opportunities for engagement, reflection and feedback.
  • Creating a self-paced, friendly competition activity between classes or grade levels to cultivate teacher/class buy-in.
Chao, Soomin. (2021, February 4). Arlene Bitely Elementary School SPSA 2020-21. Arlene Bitely Elementary School Webpage. Retrieved September 19, 2021, from https://drive.google.com/file/d/1eaMkphfy7MzoX66UJSdW7SzaP84cfoI9/view.
Hamrick, K. (2021, April 29). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering: 2021: NSF - National Science Foundation. NSF. Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21321.

Soomin Chao is the principal of Bitely Elementary School in Garvey School District.
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