Think back to a moment in time—a spark—that changed you. It could have happened with a parent, friend, or mentor, as a child or a young adult. Think about where you were and what that moment felt like, and how it changed the trajectory of your life.
For Melissa Diaz-Cisneros, it happened when she was eight years old. Mrs. Jevne, her third grade teacher at Toler Elementary, had a knack for acting out lessons, and she turned a lesson plan on earth’s continents into a transformational experience. “I remember signing my passport and taking an unforgettable trip around the world, stopping to experience the culture and culinary creations on each continent,” Diaz recalls. “It opened up my world and shaped my future career.”
After several years in the legal field, Diaz found her way back into a classroom with students of her own, teaching third grade at Harborside Elementary in Chula Vista, where 93 percent of students are Latino, 90 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 70 percent are English learners. Camila was one such learner: Introverted and resistant to group projects, she insisted she wasn’t good at math or science, and nobody ever challenged her to reach her potential. But the first opportunity she had to assume leadership on a project, her perspective changed.
Diaz prompted the students with this central question: “How can we protect our environment?” Over a six-week period, students led group conversations and developed a series of interactive recycling projects. They designed blueprints to illustrate and explain the consequences of not recycling, wrote and acted out stories to bring the issues to life, polled local residents to better understand their concerns, and discussed wildlife conservation strategies with the Living Coast Discovery Center.
Camila saw endangered animals in local habitats that she could help protect, and was given the opportunity to explore possible solutions with Diaz’s guidance. She gained confidence, public speaking skills, and learned to support others on her team. And just like that, she experienced the spark and discovered her love of science. The school has since adopted some of the students’ project proposals as a new campus recycling program.
As our world changes, our challenges shift—as do the skills needed to solve them—but one thing remains the same: the connection between an educator and a student. To this day, Mrs. Jevne remains Diaz’s mentor and an inspiration for her to continue finding creative ways to engage her young students like Camila.
School’s Out (Soon)
Here’s our favorite STEAM-y summer camps for kids
Kids in grades 4–7 work in Minecraft, create zombie games, and more at RH Fleet, UCSD Extension, and Ashley Falls campuses. Half days start at $300
From robotics to sewing to underwater exploration, there’s camps for all ages and interests at the Grantville workshop. Costs vary
New Children’s Museum
Kids ages 4–12 can paint murals, build with clay and wood, learn food science, and plant a garden at the downtown museum’s many camps. Half days start at $150
Kim Richards is a life sciences PR pro turned STEAM advocate. Her consultancy works to make anything—companies, events, schools, nonprofits—more “STEAM-y.”