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NMSU's STEM Outreach program receives $4.78 million grant for afterschool programs

She's only in fifth grade, but Esperanza Carlos is taking her first steps toward a career in space thanks to STEM outreach programs at New Mexico State University.

Supplies for area SEMAA afterschool programs are stacked on tables in the SEMAA Lab on the NMSU campus. SEMAA teaches students about science and math.
Stacks of SEMAA supplies are ready to be assembled on "tubbing day" in the NMSU SEMAA Lab. The tubs are distributed to elementary school teachers in the Gadsden Independent School District and middle school teachers in the Las Cruces Public School District. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

Though Esperanza Carlos is only in fifth grade, she is taking her first steps toward a career in space thanks to STEM outreach programs at the College of Education at New Mexico State University. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
A fifth grader glues a paper cutout of the moon's northern hemisphere to a Styrofoam ball during a SEMAA afterschool program class.
A fifth grade student at Riverside Elementary School in Sunland Park, N.M., assembles a model moon during a SEMAA after-school class on Halloween. The SEMAA program is administered by the NMSU College of Education's STEM Outreach Center. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

"It's fun because I learn about NASA, math. I'm interested in it because I want to be an astronaut when I grow up," said Carlos, a Riverside Elementary School student. "I love planets and I love science and math."

Carlos is among thousands of students in southern New Mexico who benefit from the NMSU College of Education's STEM Outreach Center each year. The center, in collaboration with local public school districts, has received a $4.78 million federal flow-through grant, administered by the New Mexico Public Education Department, for expansion and continuation of science, technology, engineering and math afterschool programs in the Gadsden and Las Cruces school districts.

The STEM-focused 21st Century Community Learning Centers Afterschool Program is a continuation of the Southern New Mexico Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA), a NASA program; Digital Media Academy (DiMA), which focuses on cultivating critical thinking skills through the use of technology for 21st century learning; Save the Children, a national reading program; and AfterMath Education, an afterschool program that offers an extension of classroom curriculum, tied into language arts, social studies, physical education, arts and more. The grant will supply $880,000 per year for Gadsden schools and $315,000 per year for Las Cruces schools, for the next four years.

"SEMAA kids are testing higher in science and math on standardized tests," said Susan Brown, STEM Outreach Center director. "This program brings more science into the classroom."

The funding fuels programs in the 15 elementary schools in the Gadsden Independent School District, and five middle schools, along with San Andreas High School in the Las Cruces Public School District, for four more years. The SEMAA and DiMA programs last for 13 weeks in the Gadsden schools and eight weeks in Las Cruces schools. The programs will reach approximately 6,600 students per year.

"I was in SEMAA last year with Mrs. Peterson," said Jorge Macias, fifth-grade student at Riverside Elementary School. "I thought it was fun, so I got in this year."

Each of the programs offers one field trip to NMSU each semester. Students will have the opportunity to engage in fun, educational activities and meet members of the NMSU STEM community. Each SEMAA class is limited to 20 students, so the teachers can focus on the lessons and not be overwhelmed with too many students. As a result, most classes have a waiting list.

These programs are particularly important in the Gadsden schools because the district and school administrations, teachers, parents and students were vocal in their need for the continuation and

expansion of the enrichment programs. The program funding also provides transportation for the children involved, so everyone has the opportunity to participate.

"We're excited that the kids are doing something fun and educational after school," said Ligia Ford, program specialist in the STEM Outreach Center.

The October session fell on Halloween so costumes for students and teachers added to the fun. The fifth grade students participating in the SEMAA program at Riverside were working on a project to learn about the moon and its hemispheres.

"It's so wonderful because everything is laid out for us - week one, everything is in a bag," said Diane Bass, Riverside Elementary School fifth-grade teacher. "We have a binder that we follow for SEMAA activities. We can make the binder our own - here's the idea and we make it how we want to present it."

The SEMAA program staff assembles all of the supplies for the lessons, separated by week, into huge plastic tubs. They call this massive organizational activity "tubbing."

"We supply everything from notebooks to scissors to glue, and even an actual astronaut outfit - like their spacesuit - for examples for the teachers. We don't ever want to have a teacher looking for a supply, we want to have markers and everything ready to teach their lessons," Ford said. "We also sort them by week because we don't want a teacher to have to scramble through the kit. We just need them to be able to pull out a lesson, say this is week one, and get started. It's a lot of work for us, our prep work is a lot, but we love it."

Once the tubs are prepared, teachers attend a Saturday workshop at NMSU to go through the lessons with SEMAA staff members. This professional development activity allows for greater networking amongst STEM teachers in southern New Mexico, but also a chance to learn new techniques for making teaching STEM more engaging.

The 21st Century Afterschool Program also engages parents and members of the community through family festivals and adult-family workshops.