So often stories are told to and/or about families; rarely do we consider telling stories with families.
Ventura County STEM Network (VC STEM) co-leaders, Marcella Klein Williams and Phil Hampton are thoughtful about the way they bring in families to co-construct the narrative of their community’s future, with a strong emphasis on communication initiatives for families and other ecosystem partners.
A significant percentage of students in Ventura County are first generation college students and many of the families in the county work in agriculture. VC STEM leadership is diligent about honoring the work of the families and connecting the way they make a living to their child’s learning and possible career trajectories in STEM.
“Igniting family engagement starts with constructing the community view of the future together. Narratives are important. A narrative declares who we are, where we come from and what the future holds for us. This work must be done with families,” says Klein Williams, director of Project Acabado, an HSI Title III STEM grant initiative to enhance student participation.
Klein Williams and Hampton both agree that it is easy to repeat statistics about educational disadvantages some communities face; however, they also both agree that tactic won’t bring families to the table. “You can’t bring families in and list the odds stacked against them; that’s not going to fly. Instead we connect what families are doing to earn a living with STEM. Agriculture becomes outdoor manufacturing and can be connected to engineering lessons students are doing in class,” says Klein Williams.
“We are changing the dinner table conversation. Understanding where families are coming from and inviting them in allows them to take charge of their future narrative. Working side by side with families also let’s us showcase their tremendous contributions to the greater community and who they are with pride,” said Klein Williams.
Keep your promise and don’t work in isolation
A few years ago, families were invited to an event hosted by the Ventura County STEM Ecosystem. When the event ended, the family members were surprised to find that they had been issued parking tickets.
Ventura County STEM Ecosystem leaders were embarrassed and learned an important lesson that day: Invitations for families to join initiatives must be more than words. Families must be co-designers whose involvement is valued, recognized and properly planned.
“We had to rectify that and make sure it wouldn’t happen again,” says Marcella Klein Williams, co-leader of the Ventura County STEM Network (VC STEM.) “Invitations can’t just be words, you have to do something and keep your promise.”
Know your audience and where they get their information
Hampton, Professor of Chemistry at California State University Channel Islands, believes science is a verb and hosts a large, regional science festival every year, engaging hundreds of families from the community.
These festivals have been successful, in part, because organizers are thoughtful about how they communicate with families.
“We tried social media to advertise the event, but it wasn’t working for us. The families we serve aren’t using social media to find events. Instead, we used local Spanish-speaking radio stations to do outreach – that’s what the families are tuning into,” said Hampton.
Additionally, Channel Islands’ outreach to middle and high schools is purposeful, with presentations for families offered in English and Spanish. The university also engages first-generation, bilingual college students to help translate so that families can hear about a real college experience from a (STEM) passionate student ambassador. This gives parents an idea of what to expect, which is especially critical if they have never had a college experience themselves before.
Opportunities for engagement matter
Science Carnival surveys show that families are more likely to get involved in STEM activities at their child’s school and take their child to other science events as a result of having participated. Hampton believes that even just one event can prompt a family to engage in STEM more together over time.
“All kids can benefit from high-quality STEM,” Hampton said. “The Science Carnival is a way to highlight the great STEM happenings within our county. We also work hard to bring partners together to make more opportunities accessible. Network resource sharing is a big endeavor of our ecosystem, in addition to connecting mentors with students and making STEM careers more visible with families.”
Hampton also mentions the power of visually showing that families engage together in science. See Science Carnival Flyer here.
Leveraging ecosystem assets – the armed forces
VC STEM has strong relationships with the three local warfare centers. The centers were recently present at VC STEM’s annual Science Carnival and were thrilled about the opportunity to engage with families.
“The Navy Seabees come out to help set-up for the Carnival the day before and ask if they can come back with their families the next day,” says Hampton. “It is such a fun experience that really knits our community together. The Science Carnival has truly improved family engagement and strengthened STEM in our county with thousands coming every year.”
The naval base is a top employer in Ventura County, therefore, connections to the armed forces not only provide resources and highlight community assets, but also showcase real career pathways. Oxnard College has connected the professional naval and student chapters of the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) to build a strong mentoring program with career exposure.
The root of learning is love
Klein Williams acknowledges the family’s role as a child’s first teacher. “It’s important to understand the context in which our learners are growing up. So, bringing families in is like bringing in a child’s whole life story and honoring the family as a first teacher. Kids see us valuing their family and think ‘man if you love my family, I know you love me too’,” says Klein Williams. “And at the end of the day that’s the root of learning. It’s love.”
Oxnard College works hard to create a welcoming atmosphere for families on campus, especially during their summer STEM Viewfinder Program. “If you want students to succeed and feel more at home, then you better open the doors wide for families,” says Klein Williams. “The families love seeing the rigor of the program and experiencing the college campus. It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to figure out reasons to include families. They need to be included and not just as an audience.”
- Families are a child’s first teacher, connecting work with relevant things in their lives and allowing them to co-design the narrative of the future.
- Families include everyone – aunts, uncles, and siblings.
- Open the door wide to families and ensure they are more than an audience. Students will feel more loved and at home when they see their family is included.
- Opportunities to engage families matter. Even a one-time event can give a family a whole new relationship with STEM.
VC STEM is a collaborative interdisciplinary community working to foster the development of tomorrow’s STEM leaders. We are leaders from higher education, PreK-12 education, business and industry, national parks, local and state government, the military and non-profit organizations who are creating a local infrastructure that embraces pre-kindergarten to post-graduate studies.
Our goal is to encourage our students to be curious and engaged, and ensure that they are prepared, able and ready to become the STEM workforce and leaders of tomorrow.
Our partners know that the world is rapidly changing and that current systems are not responding to the workforce needs for the future. Even with the broad spectrum of resources available across our county, and our rich heritage of working together, broad disparities in quality of life and education still exist. We believe that it is imperative that all of Ventura County’s children, regardless of location or social status, have access to quality educational opportunities throughout their lifetime.
Somis STEAM Family Night (CA Lottery video)