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.
FINDING THE RIGHT TOOLS
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
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.
HANDS-ON DISTANCE LEARNING
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.’”
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
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
“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