Every Tuesday and Thursday during the school year, elementary, middle and high school students from around the region travel to a special lab at UC Merced designed just for them.
It’s the CalTeach Learning Lab, and in just one year more than 2,200 students from the community have experienced hands-on lessons there in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), including chemistry, coding and robotics and spectro analysis.
“It's a fully stocked scientific laboratory that is built to inspire students to ask questions for themselves, wonder and think about the world around them,” CalTeach Special Programs Coordinator Mariah Gonsalez said. “They are connecting concepts they're learning to what they're touching and creating.”
The students, including more than 1,100 seventh-graders through a partnership with the Merced City School District, spend these field trips learning from undergraduate students who are part of the CalTeach teacher training program.
These lessons are exceptionally hands-on and interactive. The students use spectro analysis to examine plant pigments, create art robots, learn the basics of coding using microbits or Lego kits, are introduced to chemistry by creating polymers, study engineering and physics by designing and creating roller coasters and balloon cars and so much more.
The lessons don't end at the lab doors, either. The students spend a whole day on campus and not only are they working with college students, they have lunch in the dining commons with college students, tour the whole campus, get to talk to college students and see students going about their daily business — students who look like them.
“Some of the children might feel like they don't belong at college, but these field trips let them see that they do,” Gonsalez said. “No one is questioning why they're there, and they get to see themselves being part of the campus community.”
The lessons aren't only for the school children, either.
“Part of the reason it's so important to bring these kids to campus is because this is a teacher training program,” said CalTeach Director Chelsea Arnold. “We get to take undergraduates who haven't thought about careers in teaching and haven't had a chance to develop any of those skills and see if the field of education is for them. We get to give them these really positive experiences where they really see learning in action. They see the kids’ faces light up.”
Undergraduates in the CalTeach Learning lab work with Gonsalez and others to innovate ways to teach STEM concepts to K-12 students. Being at a research university also gives CalTeach the opportunity to work with faculty to bring their research stories to the greater K-12 community.
“There are amazing discoveries being made at UC Merced every day,” Arnold said. “Our job is to help turn that research into curriculum and outreach that can inspire the future generations of scholars. Undergraduate interns and fellows from a wide variety of majors are immersed in scientific pedagogy and cutting-edge research to build innovative STEM experiences for K-12. These experiences in the Learning Lab really highlight a snapshot into what education can be like.”
This year, 23 undergraduates, including five undergraduate fellows who were funded through a partnership with the campus’s College Corps program, participated in the CalTeach teacher training program and learned as much as they taught this year.
So far, the lab has gotten rave reviews from local teachers and parents, as well as the school children. The lab is taking reservations for the 2023-24 school year and teachers and administrators, including homeschool teachers, can reserve field trips on the lab’s website . Even though the school year is rapidly coming to a close, the CalTeach Learning Lab is gearing up to offer six weeks of summer STEM programming for grades 4-12 in the Bobcat Summer STEM Academy. Registration is open and can be accessed online .