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Offerings range from origami to stop-action animation


FARMINGTON — In addition to serving as a middle school teacher, Nichole Atencio has been coordinating the STEM program for the Farmington Municipal School District since its inception in 2015. So over the past few years, she's had the opportunity closely observe how students who have emerged from the elementary school program compare to their counterparts without such training when they reach middle school.

There's often a noticeable difference in their critical thinking skills, she said.

"They're thinking like a scientist," she said of the hundreds of students from the six district elementary schools that offer the program. "They're already asking, 'How does it work?' They're focused on the how and the why. They're thinking differently from their peers."

Students who haven't taken part in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program typically won't begin to ask questions of that nature until two or three years after those who have, she said.

That's just part of the impact the after-school program is having, Atencio said.

"Those kids that have had this experience are doing great," she said. "They're doing good things."

The program hasn't been in existence long enough for Atencio to accumulate much information to determine if the program is on its way to meeting its ultimate goal of steering students toward math- or science-oriented careers. And it likely will be years before that kind of empirical data begins to emerge.

But Atencio is a firm believer in the program that came to Farmington under the auspices of New Mexico State University's STEM Outreach Center, which provides out-of-school-time programs for students in kindergarten through eighth grade in school districts in Las Cruces, Hatch and Gadsden, in addition to Farmington. During the 2017-18 school year, the center was providing programs in 46 schools around the state, reaching 5,653 students, according to its website.

"The districts really like it," Kelsey Moore, a program specialist with the NMSU STEM Outreach program said. "It's a different kind of learning environment for students not like their regular school day."

Funding for the center comes from multiple sources, including the APS Foundation, the charitable arm of the Arizona Public Service Company. That organization recently awarded a $50,000 grant to the NMSU Foundation to support the program in Farmington. Over the past few years, the APS Foundation has awarded other grants totaling $277,000 to the center to support the Farmington program.

Moore said the outreach center is serving as many districts as it is capable of right now, given its current level of funding.

"But if we had another grant come through, we'd love to expand on that," she said.

Atencio said NMSU essentially does the heavy lifting for its client school districts, providing the curriculum, technology and materials for the programs.

"Our teachers have a big pile of stuff to teach," she said. "There's no planning required. It's really thought through. They've done all the hard work for teachers."

NMSU also provides all instructors with professional development each semester to help them understand the curriculum.

The program appears to be extremely popular in Farmington, where four STEM programs — art and math, origami, photography and stop-motion animation — are available to each participating school. Students apply for the program, and slots are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, usually filling up quickly.

"Most schools have a waiting list to get in," Atencio said, explaining that most schools have an enrollment of between 80 and 100 students.

Each program consists of 10 90-minute sessions. Teachers are provided with a curriculum for each session, but they are not required to teach them in any specific order.

Some students are so taken with a certain program, they might enroll in it multiple times. Atencio said that means veterans of one program will be more advanced than newcomers, but the way the program is structured, an instructor easily can work with both of those students in the same session.

"The teacher really is the facilitator of five or six different groups, whatever they're doing," Atencio said.

Each participating school gets to set its own program schedule. Most meet one or two days a week for between five and 10 weeks from 3 to 4:30 p.m., but Atencio said at least one program was conducted on a compressed, four-day-a-week schedule over three weeks. When each program reaches its conclusion each semester, an awards ceremony or art opening is held for families so that parents can celebrate the work of their children.

While not every child who participates in the program will wind up in a STEM-related career, the program is designed in many ways to simply expand the horizons of those who participate. Atencio said the program helps students understand how math and science are relevant to their everyday lives. Moore believes the program encourages more students to go to college.

"It introduces them to ideas they might not get expressed to them otherwise," she said.

Programs begin in September and January each year, and applications are available through the participating schools.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.


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