At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arizona Science Center had to close its three-story downtown Phoenix building. The lockout ceased access to about 300 hands-on exhibits. Field trips from schools near and far stopped completely.
The center, however, found a way to carry on with the learning.
In July 2020, the center launched Connect, an online portal of programs focused on STEM learning and teaching. Connect has become a key learning resource for more than 20,000 Arizona students and teachers in the last fiscal year.
“There is this need to be able to continue to support STEM at home,” the center’s chief curiosity officer Sari Custer said. “Because even if you are familiar with teaching, a lot of teachers and parents, in particular, aren’t comfortable teaching science, technology, engineering and math topics.”
The program is designed to assist students from low-income families — a group historically underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
The nonprofit received a grant from The Arizona Republic’s Season for Sharing campaign, which supports programs for at-risk children and families, helps teachers and students, and provides services for older adults.
HOW TO DONATE: Make a gift to Season for Sharing here
Last year, Season for Sharing raised $2.1 million and provided more than $30,000 in grants to organizations working to provide STEM education to students, including:
- $15,000 to Arizona Science Center for comprehensive and engaging STEM education programming at no cost to low-income children in our community.
- $7,500 to the Arizona Museum of Natural History Foundation to assist teachers with quality experiences to replace field trips connecting children with science and for professional assistance with the new science standards.
- $7,500 to the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy for support of a multimedia STEM curriculum for elementary students that encourages critical thinking to understand how an ecosystem works.
‘Anybody can do STEM’
From the comforts of their home, students log in to the Connect platform and engage with numerous activities and demonstrations that build up their knowledge of STEM curriculums.
Chemistry courses allow students to observe chemical reactions with commonplace supplies found at homes. Students blast-off rockets propelled by Alka-Seltzer. Demonstrations show survival skills of different animals and insects.
According to the Arizona Science Center, Connect has provided STEM education programming at no cost to 1,966 low-income students.
“The idea is that anybody can do STEM,” Custer said. “Everybody can be involved in science. Being able to find those relevant activities are really important.”
STEM education connotes privilege, though, Custer said. Students from low-income households may disproportionately find barriers to learning and excelling in STEM fields.
According to a report backed by the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan interstate alliance for education policymaking, schools are becoming more segregated by income that has created “STEM deserts” for students from poor families.
In 2015, more than half of the students in poorer schools did not participate in hands-on science activities at least once per week. Sixty-one percent of students in wealthier schools experienced it at least once per week. The report also found only 26% of poor high schools provided access to computer science classes, as compared to 62% of their wealthier counterparts.
The U.S. census estimates 16.8% of children aged under 18 live below the poverty line.
“Our mission is to inspire, educate and engage curious minds through science,” Custer said. “So being able to have a program like Connect makes it really easy to instill that passion and help create this pipeline of both future STEM workers and this future lover of science that we need in everyday life.”
Future of workforce
A monthly subscription to Connect costs $29.99. An annual subscription, which includes a membership to the Arizona Science Center, costs $160.
While some of the activities and course materials are pre-recorded videos, instructors frequently conduct live demonstrations and classes. Four to 16 staff members of the center are working on the program at any given time.
Running the program does not come cheap, Custer said.
“Everything we do, there is a cost associated with it. And we try to keep our expenses as low as possible to make programs accessible where we can,” she said. “That’s where support like grants really come in to help offset those costs.”
Connect is also for teachers. About 1,500 educators participated in professional development programs utilizing the Connect platform, such as the center’s Science Teacher Residency program. Among the hundreds of teachers enrolled in Connect, 65 are currently able to take the courses for free.
Title 1 schools, which receive federal funds to serve low-income students, and schools in rural parts of the states are mostly taking advantage of Connect, Custer said. The center is working on partnerships with various school districts to incorporate the learning materials in more ways.
“I think diversity in STEM is really important too. We’re seeing that having a diversified workforce just adds to that richness,” Custer said. “We can be able to solve problems better with all different viewpoints and thinking differently about things.”
How to Donate to Season for Sharing
With the help of Republic readers, Season for Sharing has raised and given away more than $70 million to Arizona nonprofits during the last 28 years. Help us continue helping our neighbors in need.
5 ways to give
- Fill out the secure, online form at sharing.azcentral.com.
- Text “SHARING” to 91-999 and click on the link in the text message.
- Go online at facebook.com/seasonforsharing and look for the “DONATE HERE” post.
- Clip the coupon on Page 4A of The Arizona Republic, fill it out and mail it to P.O. Box 29250, Phoenix AZ 85038-9250.
- Scan the QR code with your smartphone camera, click on the link to donate.
Where does the money go?
When you give to Season for Sharing, you’re helping nonprofits that support education, feed the hungry and help struggling families. The Republic pays all administrative costs, so 100% of donations go back to the community.