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The Mars Rover Gives 826LA's Student Writers a Tech Boost

Writing about thermodynamics and aliens expands student imaginations.

What is life? That was one of the questions 826LA students tackled this summer in a workshop called "It's (Partially) Rocket Science." Most of our students come from low income backgrounds, but like most youth, they're hungry for adventure, to make mistakes without judgment, and to interact with peers and adult mentors who can answer easy and strange questions.

Students get to be themselves in our writing labs, or at least be comfortable enough to explore themselves. Through this workshop, which we were able to offer for free thanks to the support of Time Warner Cable—their Connect a Million Minds initiative also helped us develop the curriculum we used—826LA students engaged in writing, experimenting, observing, thinking, and had deep conversations about thermodynamics and aliens.

It might seem odd for an organization like 826LA to focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—also known as STEM in the academic world. 826LA prefers the acronym STEAM—the "A" stands for "arts," one of our specialties and a critical element that experts argue supports and expands knowledge within the other four disciplines.

So much of learning is developing the skills to engage oneself and others in the process of conversation—whether it happens when a student is reading a story or asking a tutor for advice about how to best describe the fire-breathing characteristics of an imagined alien. Young people need to test and develop their theories, no matter how outlandish they might be. This process of unraveling one's thinking can help a young person seek out more knowledge in books or through writing. It's the spark that leads to inquiry—one of the central tenets of STEAM learning.

Students were challenged to think outside the box, to ask questions, and to experiment hands on. Students analyzed the ever gooey and strangely tough OOBLEK (the magical combination of corn starch and water) and experimented with liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. As is our custom at 826LA, we published a book of student writing composed during the workshop. Eight-year old Ana Martinez-Lozano wrote a piece about how to survive in Antarctica. "I will make a fire with sticks. I will make a house with ice, and it will not be an iceberg," she wrote. "I will use ten jackets. Also, it’s colder than Los Angeles. The ice will not melt in the Antarctic. I will eat soup if I have a cold. I will wear boots." Imaginative!

Some of the students who come to 826LA beg their parents to be here—a parent told me she withholds 826LA as a form of punishment for her daughters! Another mom took me aside and asked me to talk to her son. Since he's been coming to our workshops he can’t stop asking questions about everything. She was frustrated because she didn't have all the answers. I told this mom what I tell our volunteers: You don't need to have all the answers, just listen and engage your son. He needs to feel safe while exploring his thoughts. For now, your kindness and interest in what he has to say is all he needs.

On the final day of the workshop, our special guest Melissa Soriano from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory came to speak to our students about the Curiosity rover mission to Mars. Not only is Soriano a NASA engineer, she's also a Latina who grew up in very similar circumstances to our students. Meeting successful people who reflect the worlds they come from is central to inspiring our students to achieve great things. I asked one student, Heydy Vasquez, if she wants to be a scientist like Soriano. She emphatically said "yes!" and added "but maybe a dancer, too." Soriano chimed in, "Be whatever you want to be, just work at it."

Photo via Time Warner Cable

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