How an Oakland Nonprofit Is Teaching Girls Environmental STEM in a Way...

Diversity and Equity

How an Oakland Nonprofit Is Teaching Girls Environmental STEM in a Way That Hits Close to Home

By Tina Nazerian     Aug 23, 2018

How an Oakland Nonprofit Is Teaching Girls Environmental STEM in a Way That Hits Close to Home

Situated in West Oakland, the nonprofit Techbridge Girls works to expose girls from low-income communities to STEM. Environmental education is one of the topics the 18-year-old organization teaches girls, and its efforts in that area recently won $100,000 as the grand prize winner of the UL Innovative Education Award.

Techbridge Girls is involved with schools the Bay Area (via its Oakland headquarters), as well as the greater Seattle area and the Washington, D.C. metro region. A series of after-school programs, the organization goes directly to 4th-12th graders on their own campuses. The programs have always been free for students, although the organization is starting a new program next year that may charge those who can afford it less than $20 to participate. (Those who can’t won’t be denied.)

Inside Techbridge Girls's office in Oakland. Photo Credit: Tina Nazerian

About 600 girls go through Techbridge’s various programs each year. This year, almost 800 girls will take part. What they learn might influence them to enter STEM careers, as Juliana Velez did. She came to the program as a middle schooler and is now a mechanical engineer. Techbridge Girls, she says, helped her “decide what kind of path” she wanted to pursue in her career.

Nikole Collins-Puri, the organization’s CEO, thinks girls are too often left out of the “design and approach to STEM education.” When they choose to pursue STEM, “they are told that it’s not for them or they don’t belong,” she tells EdSurge. By contrast, her organization works to empower girls to become leaders in the field, according to its mission statement. To Collins-Puri, putting girls on a path toward STEM achievement simultaneously puts them on a path toward economic opportunities, which in turn lets them be “more conscious stewards of the environment.”

Collins-Puri says Techbridge Girls will put its new funds into its Changemakers program, a year-long program where students work on group projects that will impact their community; participants will get to take two field trips to STEM worksites, among other activities. The Changemakers program isn’t solely focused on topics related to environmental STEM, or E-STEM. However, she notes that Techbridge Girls doesn’t think environmental education and STEM are separate.

“Environmental education and STEM for us are two intersections,” Collins-Puri says. “Our girls, when they walk out of their household everyday, understand and live the environmental conditions, no matter if it's about air quality, water quality or sanitation issues. That is their reality.”

She thinks back to the Sonoma and Napa wildfires that raged at the end of 2017. People in Oakland, Collins-Puri explains, were affected by the fires. So the staff at Techbridge Girls decided to present a curriculum on fire ecology to get students to consider that fires aren’t all bad from an ecological perspective.

In addition to that curriculum, some of middle schoolers traveled to Sonoma to survey the land with professionals from a disaster recovery/cleanup company. They learned how soil regenerates itself after a fire, where the damaged items go and how to clean up in an environmentally-sound way after a disaster.

Students in Sonoma. Photo Credit: Techbridge Girls

Collins-Puri points to another example of project-based learning that resonated because it hit close to home. A group of Oakland students created a birdhouse because they didn’t hear birds singing on their campus. With their project, they wanted to attract birds, but in the process, they learned about endangered species and the types of birds present in the Oakland community.

That project can serve as a strong example for teachers. Collins-Puri believes that if educators want to implement E-STEM into their curriculum, they need start with understanding their students’ experiences, interests and values, which can make a big difference in how students learn. Once, a team member wanted to teach a group of students about how energy is created through wind—using windmills as an example. However, the students weren’t really engaged. Coming from an urban environment they had minimal knowledge of windmills, making the concept tough to get across . Educators, Collins-Puri says, should make sure they’re always grounding lessons in students’ reality.

“The reason why we can be so engaging with our curriculum is because we always contextualize it through the lens in which our girls understand on an everyday basis,” she says.

If students can identify an issue, they’re able to take matters into their own hands—such as the student in Oakland who saw that there was too much plastic waste at her school, and decided to create utensil holders so her peers could bring their own utensils from home, instead of using plastic ones provided at school.

“At the end of the day, her community issue was: There is so much plastic being thrown away,” Collins-Puri says. “And ultimately that's what you want for your girls, our girls. We want them to be conscious stewards.”

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