STUDIO: Build Our World

The latest edition of Research That Matters, "The Power of Partnership," explores how the UW College of Education is working with schools, educators and communities to make learning come alive for all students. The following story about a College partnership with Neighborhouse House to provide hands-on STEM learning opportunities to low-income, immigrant and refugee youth also appears in the online version of the magazine.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon. A gaggle of energetic middle-schoolers shuffle around an odd metal contraption set up on the sidewalk outside Neighborhood House, in the heart of West Seattle’s High Point neighborhood.

A few minutes earlier, they were joking and bouncing a basketball. Now, their mentor Benjamin Pennant has their attention. Pennant, a UW senior in aerospace engineering, is busy tinkering with the equipment.

“Who can tell me the Ideal Gas Law?” Pennant asks, looking around the group.

The students, most of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants, glance at each other to see who knows the answer.

“Come on,” Pennant says. “You guys know this.”

“I think it’s…pressure times volume equals temperature?” one says.

“Excellent!” Pennant says. “PV = nRT.”

Pennant asks about the technical definition of pressure. He leads a brief, lively discussion on Newtonian vs. non-Newtonian fluids.

Then he holds up a two-liter soda bottle.

“Now—who wants to make a nose cone so we can launch this thing?”

Several hands shoot in the air and excited voices ring out. “I do! I do!”

And that’s just the rocket science.

A first step toward STEM

Inside, other groups of middle and high-schoolers work with mentors recruited with help from the UW Dream Project (a partnership of the College of Education and Undergraduate Academic Affairs), Neighborhood House staff and AmeriCorps volunteers, and College of Education Professor Leslie Rupert Herrenkohl on fun and engaging projects in computer coding, biology, photography, wood shop and aerospace engineering.

It’s a typical weekly Studio session, part of the STUDIO: Build Our World project Herrenkohl leads for low-income, immigrant and refugee youth at Neighborhood House, under the auspices of the UW’s 3DL Partnership.

The project, which is nearing the end of its second year, works with around 45 underrepresented youth each year in multiple nine-week sessions of intensive learning aimed at helping them see STEM-related careers as an attainable long-term goal.

“Creating more opportunities for underrepresented groups to consider STEM fields is a really pressing need,” Herrenkohl said. “Our ability to innovate and change and address the complex problems we face in the 21st century depends on a diverse set of people putting their minds together.”

Partnering in the heart of community

Herrenkohl said that having a strong community-based partner like Neighborhood House is a critical element of the program’s success. Since Studio is an after-school program that requires a substantial time commitment on the part of the youth, a convenient location in the heart of their High Point community helps keep participation high.

Besides providing a perfect venue for STEM-related exploration, Neighborhood House staff also make important contributions to the program’s design and implementation on every level—and they’ve been involved since the program’s beginning.

“There’s no way we could do this alone,” Herrenkohl said. “I start from an assumption that collaboration is absolutely necessary to create powerful learning spaces. It drives the work and energizes everything we do.”

“It’s an incredibly collaborative project,” said Clarke Hill, youth services manager at Neighborhood House. “I’ve never seen a program so transformative for the youth. I’ve also never seen such strong parental involvement in an after-school program. The kids are talking about how amazing it is. They are all really proud of what they’re doing.”

Hill, who’s been part of Studio since its beginning, said one of the reasons the community is so excited about the program is that the youth who participate sometimes feel marginalized at school. As children of immigrants, Hill said, “they’re often put on a remedial track—they’re often looked at as deficient. And they’re not deficient. They’re incredible.”

“The relationship between Neighborhood House and the College of Education is really impactful on the youth,” said Neighborhood House STEM Coordinator Chris Batalon, who’s responsible for keeping the program running smoothly, including working closely with the mentors. “It’s great for them to see that adults in partnerships can be creative. Even as facilitators, we try to show the youth that we’re all on the same playing field—so we should be able to grow together. We want to introduce the concept of science to these young minds and tell them that if they want it, it’s totally attainable.”

STUDIO: Build Our World

Mentors give science a human face

Herrenkohl said another key element of the program’s success are the dozen or so UW undergraduate mentors who donate a significant amount of time to the project. Despite the high demands of their STEM-related majors—including molecular, cellular and developmental biology, biochemistry, physics, human-centered design and engineering, computer engineering, informatics and mathematics—Herrenkohl said they all put a high priority on putting a human face on science for the youth they mentor.

“Many of our mentors are women and people of color working in STEM fields, and these are populations that aren’t currently well represented in STEM careers,” Hill said. “Not only are they providing an excellent role model, but at the same time they’re also young people themselves. Our youth are saying ‘I’ve never seen an African American rocket scientist.’ Not only do they see that exists—but also that he’s just a regular guy they can have a real conversation with. I think that’s really powerful.”

“I didn’t even know what engineering was until age 20,” Pennant said. “I’m eager to pay it forward. If we’re building engineering systems that are going to affect people, we need to make sure we have a diverse group of people to build a better product. Having that exposure this early—showing these kids the STEM in them—is having a huge impact.”

“STEM fields today are largely built on Western ways of knowing,” said College of Education Ph.D. candidate Meixi, who serves as the project’s research assistant and provides support for the mentors. “This project lets us push back on this one way of knowing to multiple ways of knowing. The kids we have at Studio are brilliant. How a project like this might shift the STEM field in 15 or 20 years is something I’m very excited about. I think it’s going to change our understanding of what STEM is.”

Growing and evolving

Hill said that, as far as Neighborhood House is concerned, STUDIO is here to stay.

“One of my main focuses is sustainability of the program. We hope to replicate it at some of our other locations. We’re already starting to roll out some of the smaller one session activities in South King County, White Center and Auburn. We get excited about this program, because we know that the mentors, the youth, the staff and everybody is really happy that this is happening. You can just feel that. It’s palpable when you walk in the room. It’s phenomenal.”

“It is so important to think about the long-term benefits, not only to the youth but to society. We can only solve the problems we face when every perspective is represented,” Herrenkohl said. “The mentors and youth in our program will go on to do incredible things and contribute in significant ways that we can’t even imagine. We’re going to say we knew them back when.”


STEM Stats


of STEM professionals who are
white or Asian males.
Only 5.2 percent of nation’s science and
engineering workforce are Latino and only 4.6
percent are black, despite representing 30.6
percent of the nation’s population.


of high schools where at least three-quarters
of students are black or Latino offer calculus,
compared to 56 percent of high schools
where less than a quarter of the student body
is black or Latino.


of high schools where at least three-quarters of
students are black or Latino offer physics, compared
to 67 percent of high schools where less than a
quarter of the student body is black or Latino.


of high schools where at least three-quarters
of students are black or Latino offer chemistry,
compared to 78 percent of high schools where less
than a quarter of the student body is black or Latino.


In Washington state, underrepresented populations
earned 10 percent of computing degrees/
certificates in 2013 even though they made up
21 percent of the college-age population.


In Washington state, underrepresented populations
earned 7 percent of engineering degrees/certificates
in 2013 even though they made up 21 percent of the
college-age population.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Science Foundation, Change the Equation, Economic Modeling Specialists International, U.S. Department of Education.


New Tech Tool Aims to Document Learning

The middle- and high school students in Leslie Rupert Herrenkohl’s STUDIO project are engaging in critical STEM practices and activities every time they attend a weekly Studio session—as are the mentors who lead them.

“But one of the things that continues to be a challenge is how do we document that, when the learning is really rich and multifaceted?” Herrenkohl said. “What we hope to do is develop a tool that will allow us to document the types of learning that are taking place in real time during the STUDIO sessions. We also want to understand the impact that it’s having on the mentors, the staff and on the larger research community.”

To start, Herrenkohl enlisted the help of one of last year’s mentors, Ankur Agrawal, a human-centered design and engineering student who now works at Intel, to develop a simple prototype. Google Forms are useful for documentation using text only, but lack the ability to attach photographs or other documents (e.g., pdf files) to a form. Agrawal created a web-based tool that can be used on phones, tables and computers to make this possible.

“We want a tool that will allow youth and mentors to talk about what they’ve learned, through the use of visuals and text, with a minimum of data management time, so it’s easy to share experiences, ask for help and advice, create strategies, and reflect,” Herrenkohl said. “Having an easy-to-use tool will help us to incorporate what mentors learn to help new mentors, and allow us to better understand what the youth are learning in the program. We are in the initial phases now but would like to seek funding to fully develop a tool that can be shared with other educators.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications