College and elementary school students teach each other

Professor Kris Gutiérrez has a rule about her after-school program at Alicia Sanchez Elementary School in Lafayette:

“If you’re not having fun, something is going wrong.”

And nothing is going wrong on this spring afternoon. About 40 second- to fifth-graders are in small groups avidly working to program their own computer games, construct electrical circuits and build model solar-powered cars.

And some of them have been doing it for several years.

Working side-by-side with CU-Boulder students ranging from undergraduates to postdoctoral researchers, the children are part of a voluntary program aimed at enhancing learning in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, for both children and potential elementary school teachers. But it goes far beyond that. The program is called El Pueblo Mágico – The Magical Community.

On a recent afternoon a little boy in a Broncos jersey picked up a long tube and raised it high over his head to connect it to another tube in a problem-solving activity in which children build an intricate pathway for a marble to travel across a large board. Suddenly, a string of about 30 marbles streaked through a long trail of clear winding pipes before other delighted students caught them in a cup.

“That was awesome,” Gutiérrez said. “I want to see you do that again.”

About 50 CU students and 150 Sanchez students are involved. The CU undergraduates attend a class on learning theory on campus and then practice implementing at the school what they learned in the classroom.

Because some of the elementary students have been in the program far longer than the college students, sometimes their roles get reversed as a designed feature of the program.

“They already know how to build a solar car,” doctoral student Monica Gonzalez said of the after-school program veterans. “They’re teaching the undergraduates how to make solar cars. They taught me.”

It’s no accident that El Pueblo Mágico may look a bit like the nationally known Exploratorium in San Francisco (a science discovery center for all ages) because Gutiérrez worked there as an Osher Fellow and maintains a continuing relationship.

The open-ended experiments are designed to engage and encourage creative outcomes. The environment is aimed at providing educational opportunities that are both “meaningful and enjoyable” -- things there might not always be time for during the regular school day, she said.

“We think we can be much more innovative after school,” Gutiérrez said. “Here, we want a fifth grader and second grader and an undergraduate student working together to solve problems.”

And there’s much more happening than just STEM learning. Gonzalez is conducting research in Latino/a literacy studies, which also is integrated into the program. The students are videotaped as they work for later analysis by graduate students.

Senior Jake Nelsen is majoring in psychology at CU-Boulder with a minor in education. He previously took the learning theory class and now serves as a Learning Assistant to help other undergraduates who are taking it.

The undergraduates write “field notes” documenting both the children’s learning at Sanchez as well as their own. “It’s just a good learning opportunity all the way through for everyone involved,” he said.

“To watch (the Sanchez students) go through the process and have those ‘aha’ moments is really rewarding for me,” Nelson said.

“This is the favorite thing I do right now.”

Sanchez Elementary is a small neighborhood school committed to engaging its children in innovative learning. About 80 percent of the students qualify for meal assistance, 40 percent are English language learners and 18 percent have special needs. Seventy percent of the students are Hispanic and seven years ago, the state said the school needed to improve.

“We are so fortunate at Sanchez to be the recipient of this brainchild of Dr. Gutiérrez,” said Principal Doris Candelarie, who was named the 2014 Colorado National Distinguished Principal of the Year. “You can feel this buzz of energy. It’s electric.”

One of the things the program tries to do is provide access to educational opportunities and technology that many middle-class students and their families take for granted, Gutiérrez said. “When there’s no computer at home, students from low-income families don’t have the opportunity to keep doing at home what they were doing at school.”

Gutiérrez recently received a MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research grant to follow students back into their homes to understand how such families use new media technologies. There aren’t many computers in such homes, but there are smartphones with access to broadband -- and she thinks that has big potential.

Gutiérrez designed and directed a similar program to El Pueblo Mágico in Los Angeles that was one of the longest standing partnerships between a community school and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is now the inaugural Provost’s Chair and Professor of Learning Sciences and Literacy in the CU-Boulder School of Education.

Her program is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Chancellor’s STEM initiative, CU Outreach, a WISE grant, the CU Learning Assistant Program and the School of Education. She also partners with CU-Boulder computer science Professor Alexander Reppening.

At the end of the year, students in the program come to Boulder to learn about the university, have lunch and show what they have created.

Candelarie gives the program credit for contributing to a rise in her school’s test scores in recent years. And she strongly praises the way Gutiérrez has been able to tie together research, extensive knowledge on learning theory and the preparation of novice teachers.

“I’ve been working in education for 25 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

Gutiérrez, who lives in Lafayette, is finishing her fourth year at Sanchez this year.

“It’s been one of my rules as a professor that I do something in my own backyard,” she said. “We should be resources for the community.”