S.T.E.A.M. Crosses the Border into Kazakhstan

By Jeff Nazzaro

As the Covid-19 pandemic halted international study abroad programs and forced domestic education online, UCR University Extension showcased the adaptability and resourcefulness of its custom programs, its highly trained instructors, and its network of international representatives and agents. Together, they transformed the pandemic-postponed STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Summer Camp into a STEAM Virtual Camp with students in the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. Sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan, and conducted entirely online over five weeks of Saturday mornings (Friday evenings in California) from February 6 to March 6, 2021, the program guided 30 high school students through applied STEAM projects, enhanced with one of the things UCR University Extension has always done best—English conversation instruction.

The virtual camp’s journey began when Omar Medanat, a Regional Director on UCR University Extension’s Global Engagement Team, heard from an educational partner in the field that the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan was sponsoring international online education programs. There was an application process, but it turned out to be an easy sell for the well-prepared UCR University Extension team. They had already run an online program with the Korea New Network (KNN) broadcast media outlet in South Korea. The school’s reputation and track record in Kazakhstan took care of the rest.

"This kind of came about as a result of quarantine and the pandemic.”

“They know about our institution and our quality, the UC name is there, so the educational partner used this to nominate us for this STEAM program with a large number of students,” Omar said. “During the pandemic, things have changed a little bit. To make things go on, students, agents, schools, and institutions--like the U.S. Embassy-- are helping to move things forward online, since students cannot travel. Now they can get the same benefits from home.”

3 elementary-aged children building a robot car Transitioning from an in-person STEAM summer camp where all materials could be provided by the instructors to classes held entirely online presented some challenges, as did working with slightly older students who spoke Russian and/or Kazakh, but little English. But Ellie Peña, Program Coordinator for Youth Programs, took care of logistical aspects like scheduling around a 13-hour time difference, and Karen Dodson, Youth Programs Coordinator and Teacher Educator at UCR’s Graduate School of Education, made sure the educational components ran smoothly.

“This kind of came about as a result of quarantine and the pandemic,” Karen noted. “We reformulated it a little bit to meet the needs of second-language learners, and overall, the results were just wonderful.”

“It’s been working really well in a virtual setting."

Added Ellie, “We didn’t know how well the content would translate to high school students through an online experience, but it worked very well. These programs are project-based, and they’re meant to be a break from the content that students normally learn. They’re very interactive and fun.”

Both Ellie and Karen raved about the preparedness and online teaching prowess of the three UCR University Extension instructors. Students learned how to make hydraulic machines with Julie Kim and made bottle rockets, bridges, and roller coasters with Angelena Aguilera, both of whom are middle- and elementary school teachers, in addition to UCR University Extension STEAM Summer Camp instructors. Michael Tseng was added to the Kazakhstan program to teach English conversation.

An ESL instructor who worked in UCR University Extension’s International Education Programs, Michael developed post-STEAM-lesson conversation circles for the students, using the learned context of the day to fashion talking points and design activities. For instance, after the bottle-rocket-making lesson, students were given discussion questions in English related to space exploration. They then had to practice giving each other directions in English on how to make a bottle rocket.

"Whatever language they used, the students had a great time."

“It’s an opportunity to take concepts we’ve been working with and then providing a forum in which they can practice their oral output of English,” Michael said. “They get a lot of reading and writing and listening practice in school, but not a lot of speaking opportunities. Adding this component provides that different facet: they’re still learning the content, but are now able to use English to express themselves.”

Middle school girl and boy at desk in a classroom listening to lecture And while they did their best to use English, with bilingual Kazakh teachers in each group, the students were also able to send messages in the side chat to ask how to say a certain phrase in English. But from all accounts, in whatever language they used, the students had a great time. As part of the Final Camp Wrap-Up, several of them shared videos they made of their completed STEAM projects in action.

“The experience was magnificent,” Omar said. “You cannot imagine how happy those students were, and how the interaction was, because online, the students are normally shy--they don’t want to show their faces. The biggest problem we had before is that students would not turn on their cameras. These students were opening their cameras; they were trying to express themselves in English, even if they knew it wasn’t 100 percent correct.”

"The experience was magnificent."

The online program was such a hit with the students, instructors, and coordinators, that more are planned, including a similar set-up through the U.S. Embassy in Prague, Czech Republic. Even after international students are able to travel to California again, this new virtual avenue for the International Youth Programs, one without visa requirements or travel costs, seems as if it’s here to stay. As for now, it’s certainly getting some great traffic.

“I believe that there are a lot of international opportunities coming our way, especially since we already have an established format for the program,” Ellie said, “and it’s been working really well in a virtual setting. When the students are happy, we are happy!”