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A pandemic can’t stop hands-on learning

Rio Hondo College summer camp carries on thanks to cooperative effort

Published December 22, 2020

Additional pandemic article:

WHITTIER, CA – Every summer for more than 11 years, Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California, has hosted a CTE Career Exploration Camp for area middle school students. The ongoing challenge: help students see the broad range of technical career opportunities available and the paths of study in higher education that will lead to them. Camp organizers want students to think outside the box and look toward career options they often have not thought of such as drafting, civil design, architecture, and other career/technical areas.

In rising to this challenge, organizers have relied on one crucial tool: hands-on learning.

But 2020 has layered complications on top of complications for educators everywhere. Rio Hondo College faced a new twist to the old challenge: provide hands-on experiences to students when teachers could not even be in the same room with them.


When it comes to exciting students about the real possibilities that await them beyond middle school, listening to lectures or watching demonstrations simply can’t compare to an exploratory project in students’ own hands.

Rio Hondo College Career and Technical Education Counselor Claudia Romo sought additional outside help. “We have used various Pitsco supplies in the past, and we have been very happy with them as vendors. So, this summer, I reached out to sales representative Staci Goodson and told her I needed help.”

Goodson was able to direct Romo, who also serves as camp coordinator, to the new Pitsco STEM Creator Pack. Designed specifically with at-home use in mind, the pack includes five engineering projects ranging from bridges to balloon cars, as well as 15 challenges to complete. These projects are designed to highlight specific physical science concepts as well as give students a taste of the real-world problem-solving they will experience on a STEM career track.

The packs were distributed to the students. (See sidebar for additional details.) In living rooms and bedrooms throughout the region, students used the kits during the camp sessions, which they joined through the video conferencing tool Zoom.


Farrah Nakatani, a professor at the college with more than 20 years of drafting and engineering background, led afternoon sessions for the program. At first, she felt a little nervous because she had never taught in the CTE camp before, but she quickly developed a pattern.

“For my group, we started with a little bit of theory and lecture based on the particular activity that we were doing,” she explained. For example, when her group built cars with the STEM Creator Packs, they began with a discussion of velocity and speed, including how these are calculated. Then, they began the hands-on construction.

Working from home did not seem to impinge on the students’ enthusiasm. “Some of them got really creative,” said Nakatani. “One student put hot rod flames on her car.” She reported that students also liked having the ability to choose among four car design styles.

Another project had students creating catapults. As a real-world connection, Nakatani showed students Punkin’ Chunkin’ contest videos. “I kept calling the little red beads pumpkins. The students were excited to see how far they could chuck the beads. I told them, ‘Make sure you don’t aim them at anybody.’”


After a break for construction and testing, students reconvened online to share their data. Nakatani explained, “Everyone demonstrated what they did. Everyone expressed their calculations, what their results were. That was part of the design process – record everything and go back to your notes.”

This successful engagement with real-world concepts was no surprise to Romo. During her years as CTE camp coordinator, she has observed that the faculty do a great job with contextualization.

“We tell students this is how college learning takes place. Whenever we are asked, ‘Why do I have to know this?’ we’ve already answered it here in the summer camp. You’ll need it once you start exploring these various careers and taking college classes.”

But Romo takes particular delight when the students are so engaged that they learn the concepts without even thinking about the fact that they are learning.

“Sometimes students are surprised,” she said. “‘Oh, by the way, you just did this math formula.’ And the students say, ‘Oh my god, this is math! This is how it works!’ And so, we’ve been able to do that very successfully because of the hands-on component and the implementation.”

Partnering to overcome initial challenges

By the summer of 2020, many schools had already made a quick transition to distance learning via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom. For the safety of students, Rio Hondo College decided this was the best course of action for their CTE Career Exploration Camp as well.

Connecting with students over long distances, and even having rich group interactions, is now possible, but it takes forethought to do it well. To determine the best practices for this type of implementation, the college worked with middle schools from three partnering districts – Little Lake City School District, El Rancho Unified School District, and El Monte City School District. Recruitment of the students was handled by the three districts as well.

Rio Hondo College Career and Technical Education Counselor and Camp Coordinator Claudia Romo remembers this exploratory stage: “We asked them for feedback regarding what would work, what medium of online instruction students were used to, what would be an efficient way to deliver the content. We didn’t do this in a silo away from our middle school partners. We really did it in partnership.”

One consistent concern was the lack of technology on the students’ part. But the schools themselves were able to provide Chromebooks and hotspots to any students who needed them at home.

The distribution of hands-on materials such as the STEM Creator Packs from Pitsco Education was another cooperative effort between the college and the three districts. Rio Hondo College packed the kits and other supplies in drawstring backpacks and delivered them to the school sites. Cognizant of the safety concerns, the college even produced a video to show that their staff was using the proper personal protective equipment!

“Pitsco provides not only materials, but full support. They are small enough to be personable and friendly and large enough to be efficient. They are clearly passionate about their mission to engage all kids in high-quality STEM education.”

– Debra Rouse, K-6 STEM specialist, North Cedar Community School District, Lowden, Iowa

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