By Arica Chhay, Erin Scharfstein
Since 2009, the Berkeley Lab IT Division Support Services group has administered a three-day educational outreach program for local students from Sylvia Mendez Elementary, a two-way immersion Spanish and English bilingual school located in Berkeley, California.
“A network is a way to move data over wires and even oceans!”
“Is it RAM?” “That’s a computer case, right?”
These are some of the answers given when second and third grade students, ranging from seven to nine years old, were asked to describe technology concepts and diagrams. The children from Sylvia Mendez surprised and delighted many adults in the room with the sophistication of their understanding and ability to grasp complex IT concepts quickly.
“What I find wonderful about the program is seeing the diverse set of volunteers in the room. You look like our students! Our kids love to see their faces represented in the people leading the hands-on exercises.”
— Greg Martin, Second Grade Teacher, Sylvia Mendez Elementary
What had grown to become an annual event for IT staff, teachers, parents, and students to look forward to for over a decade, was unexpectedly paused by COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place events of 2020 through 2022.
After the long hiatus, Tammy Campbell, IT Support Services Lead, and her cadre of volunteers were thrilled to return to the tradition of hosting and engaging with the local Bay Area community in 2023.
“For over a decade, Tammy has led IT’s engagement with local second grade classes, introducing students to STEM and computing content from a curriculum and set of experiential learning opportunities developed by Tammy and other fellow IT colleagues. This work has not only supported education opportunities for local students of diverse backgrounds, it has helped to build important good will with parents and teachers throughout our local community.”
— Adam Stone, Berkeley Lab CIO & IT Division Director
Erin Scharfstein, IT Administrator and co-chair of the All Access Employee Resource Group, served as Program Coordinator, collaborating with the teachers and organizing 25 volunteers to host the annual outreach event. IT volunteers provided support for event logistics, including assisting students with hands-on activities. Months of preparation culminated in a successful event held on May 16, 18, and 19, 2023.
The current program has evolved to include a structured set of three modules conducted by different IT subject matter experts. Over 100 students from Sylvia Mendez Elementary were able to visit the Lab and participate this year.
Intro to Computer Hardware by Carlos Lopez
The morning module is taught by Carlos Lopez, Desktop Systems Specialist, starting with covering the bits and bytes of computer hardware before diving right into a hands-on workshop to build their own computers using Kano kits. Kano kits are intended for STEM education and make it easy for kids to build a powerful computer with Raspberry Pi 3.
Lessons learned: Some of the computers didn’t boot right away, so the students had to employ troubleshooting skills to reconfigure their kits, swapping wires and re-affixing hardware to get them up and running. Once booted, the students followed interactive on-screen terminal instructions from the computer, including typing, activating the trackpad, touchscreen, and sound commands.
Intro to Programming by Kahefe Fatima
After the computers were built, the kids took on programming for beginners with Kahefe Fatima, Desktop Systems Specialist. After introducing them to the concept of programming, the students took turns learning to write step-by-step instructions using an example to make a cup of hot chocolate on a Jamboard. Students were introduced to educational coding games and solved the tasks as a group. The games helped students understand how the order and sequence of their instructions impacted the end results.
Lessons learned: When students encountered issues completing challenges or realizing goals, they worked together to demonstrate creative problem-solving skills by comparing alternative paths or sharing their methods and step-by-step solutions. By the end of the module, several asked for more advanced challenges as they completed the tasks and helped fellow students with questions.
Intro to Networking by Nat Stoddard and Chris Harwood
Toward the end of the day, the students were brought into the world of networking with Nat Stoddard and Chris Harwood, Network Engineers, where they learned about passing data packets through switches and routers to retrieve information. Using mail envelope packets, data in the form of puzzle pieces were given to each table where the students worked together to compile an image.
Lessons learned: As the teams scrambled to open their data packets and assemble the “message,” some students realized they were missing pieces while others had more abstract images which required different viewpoints to place the puzzle correctly. Exchanges of data took place and tours were conducted around the room to observe each team’s unique puzzle.
STEM Outreach & Education
Nestled among the Berkeley Hills, the Lab has oftentimes been a source of mystery and intrigue for visitors and locals alike. Berkeley Lab ranks among the world’s top research institutions, with a $1.1 billion annual budget, 16 Nobel Prizes, and 16 discovered elements on the periodic table. An opportunity to learn more about the work conducted at the Lab can be a memorable experience and a powerful inspiration to the younger generation and their future careers. For volunteers, working with students was a refresh on explaining fundamentals and a reminder of how communication and teaching (in any language!) can play an important role in connecting with each other in a meaningful and genuine way.
“I am so happy this event returned after the hiatus due to the pandemic. I look forward to the Second Grade Outreach Program each time it rolls around. The kids have an awesome time learning something new, even though it is challenging. You can see how proud they are of themselves when the computers they have built ‘come to life.’ The kids arrive in the morning wanting to be soccer players and gymnasts and leave wanting to be scientists and computer programmers. It is a transformative experience for everyone involved.”
— Sara Ross, Administrator, Records Management Office
It’s no surprise the students arrive bearing different comfort levels with technology, given mixed access and exposure in their home lives. Patient guidance and encouragement throughout the day enabled each child to experience the joy of discovering IT in a fun and kid-friendly way. By passing along an appreciation and curiosity for science and technology, this annual IT outreach event is one example of how Berkeley Lab cultivates enrichment and fosters positive relationships within local communities.
Volunteering at Berkeley Lab
“This was my first time volunteering with the outreach project. Witnessing the kids’ excitement to build a computer and learn to code at such a young age brought me immense joy. It left me with a rewarding feeling and a sense of fulfillment. I’m already looking forward to next year!”
— Tonisha Garza, Administrator, IT Division Office
Berkeley Lab offers several avenues for becoming involved with outreach and education. The Office of Government and Community Relations (GCR) advances the Lab’s research and institutional objectives by engaging and partnering with government officials, local leaders, neighbors, and the K-12 STEM education community. GCR launched a service portal to offer Lab employees an easy way to learn about and select volunteer opportunities. Learn more at gcr.lbl.gov/volunteer.
The K-12 team at Berkeley Lab focuses on developing educational programs to teach and support the next generation of scientists. They aim to connect Lab experts with students around the Bay Area to excite them about STEM, help them explore STEM careers, and give them the experience to pursue STEM in college and beyond. Learn more at k12education.lbl.gov.