“I Didn’t Want to Let It Go”: STEM Access Deep in the Heart of Texas

Jacqueline Moreno knows a thing or two about the impact of access. As the Director for Math and Science at Galena Park Independent School District (I.S.D) in Houston, Texas, Jaqueline spends her time finding ways to break down barriers for students and families.

69% of students at Galena I.S.D. are classified as at risk of dropping out of high school, and 35.5% of students qualify for English Language Learner services. Growing up in the area, Jaqueline recognizes firsthand the impact withholding opportunities has on students in historically ignored communities.

Jacqueline is determined to dismantle the inaccessibility of specialized programs, starting with a district-wide after-school robotics club.

“Bringing These Two Worlds Together”

“Experience, exposure, opportunity,” Jacqueline explains, is the cornerstone of her work. As a child growing up in the Houston area, Jacqueline felt her potential was often stifled due to outsider bias based on her skin color, home language, and culture. Like many students in underserved communities, she recalls feeling dismissed and unwelcome, especially when conversations turned to college and career readiness.

Jaqueline combats the systemic oppression of her community by giving time and attention to Galena Park I.S.D. ‘s students and families that often are overlooked. Jaqueline’s passion for equitable access has fueled the progression of a unique robotics program that ultimately provides not only opportunity, but also hope for the families, the majority of which qualify as low socio-economic status.

“I am trying to bring these two worlds together,” Jaqueline says. The trauma Jaqueline felt as an underserved student lives side-by-side with her insistence in providing opportunities for the same community from which she came. Jacqueline knows that accessibility to robotics programs is paramount in impacting how students can see themselves as welcomed members of the STEM field. And it’s paramount for providing hope in the community.

“I Need Everyone To Know It Is There”

Five years ago, Jacqueline’s two-fold knowledge launched her into investigating if access and exposure to a STEM program going on in the district was actually equitable. Harris County Department of Education provided a grant to the district for an after school robotics club, but only one out of fifteen campuses were involved, with a meager five students participating. With fifteen campuses across the district, and total student enrollment of 22,366, Jacqueline knew there was plenty of work to be done.

Jacqueline brought all of the science lab teachers together to find out why the program had such a small reach. It turns out that the grant didn’t provide enough funding for all schools to purchase robots. Jacqueline used Title IV funds to provide each campus with EV3 robot’s, a device to help with programming, and either a competition mat or table. Now, Jacqueline explains, “the focus was on letting everyone know that it is there”.

To provide extended access, the robotics club began hosting live sessions on Saturdays for elementary students. Growing from just one campus they quickly reached all fifteen. The team’s work became a staple in the elementary schools, leading to twice monthly after-school meetings. Soon they were hosting Harris County Department of Education-wide events with 600-700 students coming to showcase their robotic projects from the year. This journey with robotics has even led to a high school team traveling internationally and winning world competitions. Now that is an impact Jacqueline can get behind.

“Early Access to STEM Gets Them Interested”

STEM Access in Texas Altering Trajectories CoderZ RoboticsTo inspire students to know they can get to that high school level, Jacqueline’s focus is primarily bringing STEM education to elementary classrooms. Jacqueline believes that exposure to 21st robotics skills, while students are still in elementary school, will lead to more opportunities for learners at middle and high school levels, eventually leading to and through college into STEM career fields.

When students are interested in robotics at the elementary level, teachers are able to lead them into “knowing there is a purpose, the why and what behind it,” Jacqueline says. In the robotics club, every student gets to be a part of all of the pieces that take a robot from an idea into physical action. By providing the time and space for students to learn each part, students are positioned to make informed decisions around the role they want to take in STEM.

Another powerful part coming out of an elementary focus is watching imaginations flourish. Young student’s minds are so rich and full of opportunity- students are able to think outside of the box and present powerful projects during their showcase events, finding uncanny yet practical solutions to modern-day problems. These high interest events target students and families that never believed they would ever have exposure to robotics.

“I Didn’t Want to Let it Go”

As the whole world was virtually shifting during the pandemic, Jacqueline was determined to take the robotics program along as well. “We had such a strong program and I didn’t want to let it go,” she expresses. Jacqueline found herself in a science leadership group when she heard about CoderZ’s free online virtual robotics program, which would provide the district with the platform they needed.

During the spring of 2020, only twelve to fifteen students engaged with CoderZ’s program. When the 2020-2021 school year began, Jacqueline was adamant that the program will reach all fifteen campuses again, albeit in a virtual setting. The only problem was the same as before: funding. Jaqueline was distraught as she searched for ways to pay for the program. Amazon Future Engineer program came to the rescue, providing the means for the robotics club to continue as before.

After signing up and having a CoderZ specialist train staff, buy-in was not an issue. “I think because we had that base of students and teachers that were driving the elementary robotics idea, that they all wanted to do the CorderZ program.” Saturdays now became virtual robotic events with each campus having their own google classrooms where teachers and facilitators interacted and provided individualized support for each student. Parents became excited about the program as they were able to see it side-by-side as their students navigated through the challenges.

“It Really Opened Up More Doors”

STEM Access in Texas Coding Robotics CoderZThen something surprising happened: all campuses increased in attendance. Some campuses had between eight and twelve students, while others reached up to fifty! Since it was virtual, more students had access to participate in the club, which means exposing even more students to robotics and early STEM education than was possible pre-pandemic. The robots on CoderZ are the same robots that the district had in their buildings, providing students with authentic experiences programming robots.

During the second semester, sessions were mostly live, but some teachers utilized a hybrid model to provide continued access for students learning from home. It wasn’t uncommon to see at-home students showing their projects from their bedroom to students in the gym of a campus. “It really opened up more doors and we were really appreciative of that,” Jacqueline beams.

Bringing Lessons With Us into 21-22

Jaqueline is taking the learning from running the virtual robotics club during a pandemic and applying to the 21-22 school year, “I want to keep it because it means more access.” Galena Park I.S.D. has around five physical robots per campus, which means that during an afterschool program, no more than ten kids can interact during that time. Those ten kids would write the program, send Bluetooth to robots, test, and re-write during the club time while all others worked in STEM bins. This means only 10 kids at a time, so when meeting twice a month, that’s 20 kids per month that had access to full robotics and coding.

With CoderZ in a post-pandemic classroom, students can interact half the time with stem bins while the other half of the classroom can program robots. Halfway through their time, they switch, allowing every student in attendance to program robots. CoderZ also informed teachers on student progress of skills by providing a dashboard with reporting capabilities and scaffolded courses that support all levels of programmers.

Desires of CoderZ continuation Post-Covid

Jaqueline is determined to keep the momentum going and have the program reach even more students than pre-pandemic. Jaqueline explains, “typically we have 150-175 students show up to in person events, so now I’m wondering if we’re going to have 350 kids with parents now,” which means rethinking how CoderZ can play a role as their physical spaces change to meet the needs of increased attendance.

The common problem that underlines this initiative is, again, funding. Jacqueline is trying to find a partner to financially support the program so that they can continue to impact students in early STEM education. Middle and Highschool programs often allot more money and resources to STEM education, whereas elementary schools are often left out to fend for themselves, as is the case with Galena Park I.S.D.

Jaqueline’s staunch support allowed for the transition of their burgeoning after-school robotics club to and through the Covid-19 pandemic, no easy feat. Jaqueline selflessly serves students under the belief that providing strategic opportunities to increase access for students and families at the elementary level drastically changes student life trajectories. Galena Park I.S.D. stakeholders are very lucky to have Jacqueline pushing for access for students, and CoderZ is fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Are you a STEM Educator in need of resources and inspiration? All the best STEM teachers read our newsletter and follow us on social media @GoCoderZ.