Building bridges to STEM inspiration

Mentors work with middle and high school students on hands-on projects

By David Moore | March 21, 2022

Stem Scaffold Opt
A mentor from The Masters Program (left) works with a student from Desert Sage Academy on the single lane bridge program.

Imagine you’re approaching a narrow bridge with lights and gates that only allow cars to cross from one direction at a time. It might seem a straightforward piece of traffic management, but have you ever considered how it actually works, or imagined how you might build a system to do this, even in model form?  Add to that a road that floods sometimes and red, yellow and green lights and a digital screen to let you know when you can cross.

With help from college students and professional mentors, this is the challenge that more than 200 middle and high school students in Santa Fe and Española took on in the fall of 2021, learning teamwork and STEM skills along the way.

The program was run by the STEM Scaffold Santa Fe collaborative working group, which supplements students’ education with in-school hands-on activities to engage and inspire their interest in STEM courses and careers. 

Trained college students and STEM professional mentors from places including Northern New Mexico College, Santa Fe Community College, St John’s College and the Laboratory worked with students from Española Valley High School, Desert Sage Academy, Santa Fe Indian School, and El Camino Real Academy every week for eight weeks to complete the project: a model of the bridge scenario with sensors, working gates, lights, an LCD display and a computer programmed to run it all correctly.

“STEM Scaffold Santa Fe’s projects are aligned with AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] and Next Generation Science Standards, and incorporate and build students’ programming, engineering, math, presentation and teamwork skills,” says Lina Germann of nonprofit STEM Santa Fe, who co-founded the working group, part of Opportunity Santa Fe, in 2017 along with Steve Cox of Northern New Mexico College.

“The skills the students learn with the bridge project include real-world engaging activities like coding and working with sensors, servos and diodes,” says Rebecca Estrada from the Laboratory’s Community Partnerships Office, who serves on the working group. “The whole experience can open some career paths that students might not have thought of.”

Aaron Pital, a post-doctorate student at LANL served as one of the mentors in the classroom at El Camino Real Academy. 

“It's hard as a middle or high school student to know what you might be interested in pursuing, and I feel that one of the primary duties of scientists is to be a bridge between the next generation and their interests,” he says.

Since Pital needed to work with students during their school hours, the Laboratory paid for his service time under its Community Involvement and Outreach Time program. But the bigger reward was seeing the impact of the project that built bridges in more ways than one.

“To see the students begin to make the link between how to build a project and how it works is always a joy,” he says. “I think it really helps to build a sense of efficacy that spills over into other challenges.”