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Children color and paint with bright colors on paper and coffee filters. Photo by Photo by Caroline Hart

Kids get hands-on with STEM activities at Children’s Fairyland

on September 25, 2019

On a recent Friday morning at Children’s Fairyland, 2-year-old Maxine Santiago reached toward an empty turtle shell, then pointed to a picture of a Red Ear Slider turtle at a booth for the East Bay Regional Park District, indicating that she’d matched the animal to its shell.

Nearby, educators from the Alameda County Office of Education performed a coordinated dance to the disco anthem “YMCA,” while toddlers danced on the grass in front of them.

Across the grass, kids and their parents roamed from table to table, sponsored by organizations like Clorox, the Lawrence Hall of Science, Scientific Adventures for Girls, the Oakland Zoo, and the Port of Oakland, featuring hands-on activities that involved coloring, painting, drawing and bubbles.

For the fourth year in a row, the East Bay Economic Development Alliance, a public-private partnership that promotes economic growth, teamed up with Oakland’s Fairyland, educational groups, local companies and nonprofits to foster positive perceptions of science and math, and to encourage kids to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. 

“An event like this is an example for kids and science, but also for parents and the community to be exposed to this,” said Eric Cabunoc, a membership manager at the Chabot Space and Science Center, who was standing behind a table where kids were doing an activity to learn about sublimation, the process whereby a solid becomes a gas. The activity involved gas, bubbles and dry ice in plastic containers. Another employee at the table demonstrated the effects of a vacuum chamber on water. The vacuum chamber lowered the boiling point of the water, yet made it feel cool to the touch.

Educators from the Institute for STEM Education at Cal State East Bay were demonstrating what one of their staff members described as a “basic science activity with cohesion and pennies.” A table full of pennies, some stuck together, were available for kids to touch, explore and question how and why some stuck together.

Cody Konno, the communications and program coordinator of the Institute for Stem Education at CSU East Bay, said that activities like these are especially important for introducing kids to math. Konno said that early proficiency—or perceived proficiency—in math sets kids up for the rest of their lives, because schools commonly group students by their ability at young ages. Groupings like this can effect the rate at which students advance in their studies, and whether they think they can at all. 

“What we find in STEM is that essential play is critical for building knowledge,” said Dawn O’Connor, the Director of STEM at the Alameda County Office of Education. “You don’t have to teach a child how to play. … Learning is a social endeavor.” She said that one of the aims of educators working their booth, which presented activities with magnets, was to help parents interact with their children. Engaging in activities can serve as a vehicle for discussion, questioning and learning, she said.

The booth’s activities were designed to offer something interesting to kids of different ages. For example, a young child playing with magnets at O’Connor’s booth might understand that the metals are sticking together or repelling, a middle-schooler might understand that a magnetic field exists when the objects are sticking or repelling, and a high schooler might understand what’s happening with the magnet’s atomic field.

O’ Connor said that a long-term goal for her office is to make sure all children in Alameda County can eventually earn a livable wage, and that pursuing science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (also known as STEAM) can be a path to well-paying jobs. She said that her program is focusing on improving educational outcomes for marginalized communities, and that reaching children at an early age is vital.

Yaritzie Garcia, a third grade student who was attending the fair with her father, Julio, and the rest of her Hillside Elementary School class, said that she liked the fair because it had a lot of activities, but she wasn’t really sure what STEM is. 

For some parents, just getting their kids to try a science activity felt like a good first step. “This is amazing,” said Monica Santiago, as she stood with her, Maxine. “My daughter’s only two and this is a great example for her to learn and get started in different experiments.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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