BEAM: Cal engineering students take it to the classroom

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    Berkeley Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) is an after-school science program run by UC Berkeley undergraduates for local K-12 students. Students who teach for BEAM can develop their own lesson plans and enroll for course credit (through DeCal), and they have lasting impacts on children in our local schools.

    Founded two years ago by Cal students who wanted to contribute to the community while strengthening their own leadership and teaching skills, BEAM has grown to 11 participating local elementary and high schools. A BEAM alum has even started a satellite branch of the program at UCLA. This past semester, BEAM had 60 mentors who taught a total of 160 kids, over 65% of whom are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. In total, this group of Cal undergrads logged over 2,000 hours of in-classroom mentoring in just four months.

    Now, let’s put BEAM’s 2000 hours of teaching in context. A recent study by the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) reported some all-too-real facts about the state of science education in our local public schools. They found that 80% of local K-5 teachers spend less than 60 minutes per week teaching science–and 16% spend no time at all. BEAM, and other local science outreach programs like Community Resources for Science (CRS), step in where the state and local governments have not.

    It is beyond ironic that our East Bay schools, which sit within 45 minutes of Silicon Valley and two of the top-five engineering schools in the country (Stanford and UC Berkeley), have some of the least-funded and least-promoted science programs in the U.S. Please let me clarify that this is by no fault of our esteemed public school teachers, who do what they can with what resources they have. After all, science education is expensive, and it is daunting for teachers whose backgrounds are not science. The mentors of BEAM and the hard-working folks at our local science organizations are critical to our science education programs.

    On December 6, I attended the BEAM Engineering Education Mini-Conference, where 10 undergraduate mentor teams stood up in front of their peers to present their final project reports. Each group described their lesson plan, with topics ranging from wind turbine design to solar cookers to DNA extraction from strawberries. They also summarized the high points and the low points of the classroom experience. Overwhelmingly, the students expressed just how much this semester of BEAM participation had personally benefited them, improving their teaching skills and their self-confidence.

    The efforts of BEAM goes beyond the after-school classroom. They are currently working to develop take-home kits for their students, so the science and engineering fun doesn’t have to stop when the class is over, as well as lessons for parents, to engage the participating students’ families. The program has also united our exceptional UC Berkeley resources with those of other local institutions. BEAM and CRS have a partnership in the works for next year. On-campus sponsors of BEAM include Cal Corps and the departments of Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Bioengineering.

    The lesson is simple: when students take the initiative to improve our community, they succeed. And in the process they improve themselves on a level that was, to them, perhaps unexpected beforehand. Straight from BEAM’s own website, “Our core values are passion, diversity and leadership. We believe that community service builds strong, empathetic leaders. As students ourselves, we understand that the best way to learn is to teach.” (If only BEAM had a lesson plan designed for California’s politicians, right?)

    Are you a local K-12 teacher looking for fun science and engineering teaching resources? Check out the free lesson plans on BEAM’s website, all developed by Cal undergrads, as well as those offered by LHS and Chabot Space & Science Center.

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    1. cindy wong

      I just learned Beam program while helping my 5th grader girl researching info for her science project.
      Can she take some lesson from your program and how it works? Please advise.

      Thanks