CSUSM undergraduate and graduate students are putting science into the hands of elementary school children as part of a new service learning initiative that brings STEM concepts to life at Twin Oaks Elementary.

Focused on boosting early education in science, technology, engineering and math – known as the “STEM” disciplines – 28 students at CSUSM developed lesson plans and taught eight interactive science workshops to more than 200 children from kindergarten through fifth grade. The STEM Outreach project was the first concerted opportunity for CSUSM students to participate in service learning that had a science-specific focus.

“Our aim was to get the kids excited about science and allow them to see, touch and learn about scientific concepts in a fun way,” explained senior biological sciences student Analissa Sarno.



Each lesson plan introduced a different scientific theory and incorporated a hypothesis into a hands-on exploration exercise. The workshops included studies on germs, hereditary traits, how the digestive system functions and how to extract DNA from strawberries. Each activity was modeled after college-level concepts that are taught in upper-division biology, biotechnology and mathematics courses.

One of the activities was a food forging game that explored the role of predators in an ecosystem. In a workshop with fourth graders, the majority of the students were tasked with being moose and then instructed to collect plants, represented by pinto beans, from their environment before being preyed upon by other children playing the part of the wolves. With varying scenarios acted out, the students soon discovered the need for a balanced ecosystem. Too many wolves meant a scarce population of moose and an overabundance of plants. Too few predators would result in near collapse of the ecosystem that couldn’t replenish its plant life fast enough.

“We did a similar advanced version of this activity in the ecology lab on campus,” Sarno said. “To modify it for the fourth graders, we changed the vocabulary, simplified the complexity and ensured that the results would be more visible.”

The activity brought to life what researchers in Yellowstone discovered when the population of wolves took a sudden decline and the vegetation suffered as herds of elk overpopulated the national park.

Before presenting to the students at Twin Oaks, each lesson plan was reviewed by a CSUSM credential student to ensure that the lesson plans met the specific California science standards for each respective grade level. Because children aren’t tested in science until they reach fifth grade, many get little hands-on science education. As a result, students can often feel that scientific concepts and theories are too difficult to understand – a perspective that STEM faculty fellow and biological sciences professor Dr. Bianca Mothe is working to counteract.

“There’s not a lot of science infused in the curriculum in those earlier years,” said Mothe, who spearheaded the service learning project for CSUSM students. “Science is a hands-on exercise that needs to be engaging, exciting and interactive. Often the exposure students receive is through a textbook as opposed to an experiment, which really limits their understanding and interest in the subject.”

Other science-based afterschool programs have been offered at the elementary campus in the past. But with private companies charging a fee to all participants, the enrichment programs have traditionally been out of reach for nearly 60 percent of the school’s students who are enrolled in the free lunch program. As a result, those workshops had not been well attended, explained Assistant Principal Joe Knisley.

“The partnership with Cal State San Marcos has been incredibly beneficial for our students to interact with university students and hear about their path to college and their passion for science and technology,” he said. “The activities are highly engaging and interesting, and our students are really gaining a deeper understanding and enthusiasm for science.”

“We want science to be accessible to all students, which is why we offered this service for free,” explained Mothe. More than one fourth of the students at Twin Oaks were able to participate in at least one of the eight afterschool workshops hosted by CSUSM students.

“By inviting the teachers to attend the afterschool workshops, we are able to expose them to science-specific exercises that can be replicated during class time,” Mothe added. “Eventually all students will be introduced to these concepts through the lesson plans and materials that remain at the school.”

The STEM Outreach project will be offered again during the spring semester for students enrolled in various courses within the College of Science and Mathematics. Mothe plans to expand the project’s scope and encourage chemistry and physics students to get involved as well.

“It’s a rewarding experience to interact with and watch the students have those ‘a-ha’ moments as they begin to better understand the theories and concepts we presented,” said graduate student Yessenia Peralta. “Science takes passion and we wanted to expose the students early to a possible career field that they may not have considered.”

“We want science to be accessible to all students, which is why we offered this service for free,” explained Dr. Bianca Mothe, professor of biological sciences. More than one fourth of the students at Twin Oaks Elementary were able to participate in at least one of the eight afterschool workshops hosted by CSUSM students in the month of November.