By: Mayu Wu, Ismael Carrilo, & Beto Vasquez

Since 2020, remote and virtual education has shifted the student, teacher, and family educational experience. Therefore, the Summer of 2021 brought forth a much needed rise of energy, care, fun, and science for San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) students. With the support and leadership of the San Diego Foundation, SDUSD’s Level Up SD initiative, local community members & organizations – essential resources and opportunities were provided to host free summer camps for SDUSD families.

Undoubtedly, remote education has had an impact on students, teachers, and families alike. As a result, the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) and the San Diego Foundation introduced the 2021 “summer of fun and joy”. Thanks to the San Diego Foundation and SDUSD’s Level Up SD initiative many local organizations (such as ours) were provided with the necessary resources to host free summer camps for SDUSD students. As such, a robust list of programming was made available (for free!) to over 100,000 students and families served by the second largest district in California – SDUSD. Camps offered a variety of topics including music, outdoor recreation, science, technology, engineering, math, art, sports and probably many others that we were not aware of. Among all those great offerings UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) and the Southeast San Diego STEM Ecosystem, were busy hosting a series of week-long STEM-focused camps in Southeast San Diego, serving up to 30 students each week!

CREATE is a 20+ year old center at UC San Diego committed to providing equitable educational opportunities for all and the Southeast San Diego STEM Ecosystem represents a neighborhood-focused working group of STEM-engaged partners dedicated to expanding access to STEM learning opportunities through a collective impact approach. Together, they created the Opportunities for Future Engineers, Researchers, and Scientists (OFFERS) STEM Camps. OFFERS provided a virtual component (focused on computer science and artificial intelligence for high school students) and an in-person component. Recognizing the importance of STEM exposure at an early age – the in-person camps were designed for 3rd through 5th graders, and focused on getting students excited, engaged and comfortable with learning that anyone can be a scientist or engineer! 

Designed with a Purpose

Students participated in dynamic  half-day or full-day science and art programming that finished  with a weekly educational field trip. Weekly field trips involved  the San Diego Zoo,  the Safari Park, watershed lessons on the bay, Birch Aquarium, and the Fleet Science Center. The classroom sessions were led by program staff in collaboration with diverse and intentional  providers ranging from university faculty, museums, local non-profits, and community members. 

While students engaged in STEM and artistic led activities, physical activities were also part of the daily camp schedule. Students participated in moderate to vigorous physical activities, allowing students to burn off energy, engage in organized games, and observe their body within the theme of science.  Concluding, the classroom sessions students were provided books and science-related materials (to keep) at the end of every week to encourage their curiosity and creativity after camp.

So what did we do?

As one of our busiest summers ever, OFFERS initially started with four weeks of half-day camps at Chollas-Mead Elementary to complement SDUSD’s morning summer school classes and consequently providing an opportunity for families to comfortably leave their children at school for a full day (since summer school was a half-day experience). This was important to us as we realized the importance of childcare for working families and wanted to provide programming that would be helpful to families and students. Working in partnership with various SESD STEM Ecosystem partners like the Malcolm X Library, Science Delivered, the Fleet Science Center and Elevated Classrooms (as well as numerous community partners!) students were exposed to a wide variety of STEM lessons and activities, along with hands-on art projects for students to express their creativity. The weeks were split into themes, which corresponded with each week’s Friday field trip. Weeks one and three focused on light and sound, which allowed students to explore the Design Zone exhibit at The Fleet Science Center in-depth. Students got the chance to make their own music, try to replicate songs with simulated turntables, and see how science and math are present in everyday life. The alternating weeks focused on our watersheds and oceans, and was complemented with a trip to the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Although this program was initially designed for four half-day weeks, we were excited to be invited to replicate our program at another local site. Due to a need for programming in the greater Logan Heights area, OFFERS was extended to include an additional three weeks of full-day programming at Logan Memorial Education Campus (LMEC); a newer, developing K-12 institution located on 28th Street & Oceanview Boulevard in Logan Heights. This vibrant campus was a great location as once more we were in the heart of a community we wanted to make sure we served. From the beginning, OFFERS was intentional about providing equitable opportunities throughout its camps and was elated that 100% of our camps took place in Southeast San Diego, and that about 70% of participants were from underrepesented communities. Once again our camps at LMEC were designed with families in mind and provided a safe and productive environment for families and their children from 9 am to 4 pm daily.

Replicating a similar model as we had done previously, our partners were essential in connecting camp participants to local scientists, artists, and community members to provide quality activities and also create collaborative opportunities with smaller community organizations. We wanted camp participants to see themselves in the activities and partners they interacted with. Full day programming allowed new partners to get involved and as a result introduced activities like forensics taught by

Kimberly Zazueta, a forensics student, screen printing with Chikle, a local artivist/educator, paper mosaics and watercolors with local educator/artist/community leader, Hector Villegas, music and sound with Dr. Victor Minces and his Sound Circus, and urban agriculture (Urban Growth introduced hydroponics, while Mundo Gardens shared about the traditional methods of food growth). Students also had the opportunity to make tie-dye shirts, practice chemistry with foam monsters, engineer their own straw rockets, and learn about climate change by building their own cities and making s’mores using solar ovens! Similarly, each week provided a different field trip; students went to the San Diego Safari Park (where they saw the only platypuses outside of Australia), the San Diego Zoo, and the Maritime Museum (with an accompanying boat ride in the San Diego Bay).

As a whole, OFFERS was very intentional about how staff were representative of the students being served so camp participants could “see what they could be” and afforded culturally and geographically-relevant examples of the science around them. Such immersive lessons included the biology, chemistry and physics of tortillas (yes, they got to make them in class!), biology and chemistry of natural dyes using cochinil (the cactus bug), and dissecting flowers to learn about pollination.

Our Team 

Our staff was constructed of intergenerational, diverse individuals from various racial, social, and cultural backgrounds. They were flexible, accommodating, and dynamic in supporting and fostering students’ and program needs. The team centered a trauma-informed framework when interacting with students and colleagues, considering the pandemic, socio, cultural and community backgrounds. As a result, we were able to lead student engagement activities relating to the STEAM curriculum and learning outcomes while providing a positive environment where students felt cared for and heard.

Needless to say, operating programs in a pandemic was (and continues to be) challenging. However, OFFERS prioritized the health and safety of camp participants, families, staff, and the communities. As a result, we took all the precautions possible and required staff to provide weekly negative tests and all to oblige to mask mandates during the program’s duration. OFFERS took the necessary measurements to ensure proper sanitation of materials, classrooms, restrooms, and shared spaces throughout the camp days and hours.

So did the students like it? 

Serving a total of about 160 students across all 6 weeks of camp, OFFERS curated an inclusive environment that was both educational and fun; as one parent commented, “I’ve never seen my son run to school before, but he runs out of the car every day excited for OFFERS STEAM Camp.” In an effort to complement their camp experiences, students also received packets full of activities to do at home. One parent made the following observation – illustrating the success of the program, “they came home every day excited about all of the things they learned, and couldn’t stop talking about all the fun they had. The goodies you sent home with them on Thursday were incredibly generous, and my kids love them! [Student] can’t stop making different configurations with the brain flakes–he is not only enjoying them, but I know it is so good for his creativity and thinking skills. The tie-dye shirts are awesome, and they wore their OFFERS shirts proudly to the field trip today!

Again, none of this would have been possible without Level Up SD. We are especially appreciative to the San Diego Unified School District, the Level Up SD program, and the San Diego Foundation for making this possible for the many families that were touched. We’d also like to extend a thank you to the partners, community members, organizations, and staff that made this camp possible. 

By providing students with exposure to STEAM and getting them interested, we are also equipping them with a better understanding of the world around them and important critical thinking skills. Not only did OFFERS prepare them for success, it helped students see themselves as future STEAM professionals. Increasing young people’s access to STEAM and engaging them at a young age is crucial in promoting equity and keeping students within the K-20 STEM pipeline. As such, we are excited to continue providing programs like OFFERS through the academic year.

If you would like to learn more or get involved, please contact Maya Wu at