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How a STEM Program Helps Students of Color See Themselves in Science

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High clouds over the Seeds of Harmony garden sheltered eight masked students from the sun.

They huddled in between beds of carrots and kale and rows of towering corn stalks, pointing out butterflies, bees, and other visiting pollinators.

"Does anyone know what else grows in the soil?" asked Asia Saechao. Saechao is the education manager at Camp ELSO and its Wayfinders program, a K-8 summer camp in Portland, Ore., that focuses on introducing students of color to a multicultural approach in STEM education.

"We wanted to create an environment that kids could start to learn science early, and to start to debunk that notion that Black and brown children aren't scientists," said Sprinavasa Brown, Camp ELSO's co-founder and executive director.

Part of creating that environment not only involves catering to students who identify as students of color, but having their counselors identify as a person of color as well.

In Oregon, nearly 37 percent of K-12 students are students of color, but only 5 percent are Black students. About 10 percent of teachers are persons of color, but only 1 percent are Black educators, according to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and the Oregon Department of Education. These figures are a consequence of the lasting legacy of racism in Oregon, which at different points in its history has prohibited Black people from living or owning property in the state.

It's this legacy-and the continued underrepresentation of people of color in STEM-related fields-that Brown says makes it so important to foster STEM education in Black students and other students of color.

"Our hope is that [by bringing] in educators who are Black and brown, and [providing] unique opportunities for kids to try something; to ask questions; to be curious; to practice that scientific way of thinking early, that those different things layered together will create the type of outcomes that we want to see: Which is a really robust and enriched pipeline of Black children who are starting to go into STEM fields," Brown said.

Reaching More Students of Color During COVID-19

Camp ELSO's mission this summer was to reach as many children of color in the Portland metro area as possible, even during a pandemic.

"The pandemic caused us to have to pause and really reevaluate our whole camp framework," Brown said. "Luckily, our model is to take kids out on experiential field trips on a daily basis."

To keep the risk of spreading the coronavirus low, the Wayfinders program drastically reduced its in-person cohort sizes from 150 students to eight. Counselors also implemented temperature checks, mask-wearing, social distancing, and handwashing measures.

While small groups of kids did in-person trips, dozens more participated remotely using take-home kits involving bug catching, vegetable dying, and plant identification. Brown hopes that even if these students aren't participating in-person, they can still be excited by science and identify the ways they're already practicing it.

"When I think of a cultural framework for teaching science, I think about habits, thoughts, actions that have been passed down in generations of Black families, and Latinx families, and Indigenous culture that is the way that we understand and relate to the world around us," Brown said.

This framework for encouraging Portland's students of color in science is why Brown and the rest of the team at Camp ELSO were unwilling to give up the Wayfinders program in 2020.

"If we want kids to care about the natural world-to care about their environment, to care about their homes and communities and be active and engaged citizens-we really need to create opportunities for them to get outside, to have those unique moments that are those moments that we look back on as adults," Brown said.

Camp ELSO's commitment to offering a hybrid version of its Wayfinders program with its blend of in-person and take-home activities also stemmed from Brown's feeling of responsibility to her community.

"It's something that I know I need to pass on to future generations," she said. "I'm hoping that they really feel like not just Portland, but Oregon is their home, and that they want to pay it forward to the next group of kids."

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