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Youth Engaged in STEM and Service:

A Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Summer Solar Camp Leveraging Community-Based Partnerships

By Joanna TotinoA, Rachel KramerB, Evan GattozziB, Valeria Fike RomeroA, Melissa CollinsA, Michael ArnoldB, Alex SanchezA, and Devin CaveroA.


In the summers of 2021, 2022, and 2023, middle school students from Alameda, California, gathered at the Alameda Boys & Girls Club (ABGC) to participate in Youth Engaged in STEM and Service (YESS), where they learned about solar technology and explored the value of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in their lives, communities, and the world. A team of educators and researchers from The Lawrence Hall of Science (The Lawrence), in collaboration with We Share Solar, the Alameda Boys & Girls Club (ABGC), and Girls Inc. of the Island City (Girls Inc.), designed and implemented the YESS summer camp.

Designed to support STEM identity development in female-identifying youth and youth of color in middle school, the new, hands-on summer program YESS offered culturally relevant and sustaining STEM programming focused on solar technology applications. YESS was funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program (award #1949586).

Research shows an underrepresentation of Black, brown (i.e., Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern), and female-identifying individuals in STEM careers and pathways. This is a symptom of a larger problem in which the current system of formal science education continues to fail these youth who are given limited opportunities to build and sustain their interests in STEM beyond required coursework.[1]

Members of Black and brown communities comprise just 11% of science and engineering occupations, compared to 67% for white-identifying and 21% for Asian-identifying.[2] Likewise, though the percentage of female-identifying STEM degree holders increased from 30% in 1993 to 40% in 2015, there are still pervasive disparities in the STEM workforce, with just 28% of science and engineering professionals identifying as female.[3]

YESS created a new opportunity for Black, brown, and female-identifying youth to explore STEM concepts, careers, and pathways and experience STEM fascination in ways that are culturally relevant and sustaining for youth from a range of backgrounds and counteract the historical prioritization of cultural values and norms of dominant communities.[4], [5] Ultimately, YESS seeks to contribute to a more diverse STEM field, with more Black and brown women who self-identify as scientists and STEM professionals working in and leading solar and other STEM industries toward energy equity and climate change mitigation.

This article shares highlights and reflections on what it took to create and offer an informal STEM educational experience that was informative, meaningful, and culturally relevant and sustaining.

YESS Camp Background

YESS program leaders developed the curriculum using the foundations they built in the Educational Pathways Into College and Career (EPICC) program, a previous NSF-funded (DRL-1433677) solar energy program developed by The Lawrence as a formal learning opportunity for high school-aged youth. The new YESS curriculum was adapted for middle-school-aged youth in a summer camp context and employs culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies. The curriculum addresses four key areas: (1) Solar engineering, (2) Identity, (3) Global or local energy issues, and (4) STEM career knowledge-building.

We Share Solar, a nonprofit education program of We Care Solar that provides sustainable energy solutions and education in communities with limited electricity access, served as a partner during EPICC and YESS's development by providing curricular content related to solving environmental issues. The YESS curriculum includes the use of We Share Solar® Suitcases (or Solar Suitcase), providing a hands-on opportunity to learn about solar energy and engineering. We Share Solar also connected youth in global service learning to partner communities worldwide via video chats and letter-writing exchanges.

Program leaders offered two two-week YESS camp sessions annually for three summers (2021-23), each drawing different youth participants. The first camp session approached STEM concepts through a local relevance lens, and the second through a global service learning lens. Figure 1 summarizes key similarities and differences between the two camps.

Comparison of Local Relevance and Global Service Learning Conditions
FIGURE 1: Comparison of Local Relevance and Global Service Learning Conditions

The local relevance camp emphasized the complex environmental challenges the city of Alameda faces; Alameda borders Oakland across an estuary canal to the east and the San Francisco Bay to its west. Built atop marshland, this city island is at high risk of flooding. This camp addressed the question, "How can we use solar power to transport water in our community to address problems associated with climate change?" Participating youth explored recent local environmental problems, particularly drought and flooding issues, constructed a small-scale portable solar technology system, and built models designed to solve local water issues using solar energy.

The global service learning camp focused on environmental issues, including drought, and lack of electricity access in rural areas worldwide. It addressed the question, "How can solar power be used for the transport of water to improve the quality of life in rural areas with limited electricity?" Youth explored global energy needs, communicated with partner communities worldwide via video conference, constructed solar suitcases, and designed models using solar energy to solve water issues in rural communities.


Collaboration and partnership among individuals and teams made YESS's development and implementation possible. Throughout this article, we reference the various teams and organizations that contributed to the camps' development and success, including, but not limited to, the program team, research team, evaluation team, local youth-serving and educational organizational partners, and local teachers. We include a complete list of teams and partners and discuss their roles at the end of this article.

Learning & Lessons for Educators

Using Culturally Relevant & Sustaining Pedagogy in STEM

At the start of the grant, the first objective for YESS program leaders was to develop the camp curriculum. To do this, the program team, including Joanna Totino and Anna Gomberg, adapted and augmented EPICC content and activities to make them relevant and appropriate for YESS middle school-aged youth, fit within an informal summer camp context, and adopt a culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy.

Culturally relevant pedagogy is based on the premise that a match or mismatch between the values, beliefs, and norms of an individual's home or community culture and those of their academic learning environments can have tremendous implications on the individual's comfort, motivation, and success in the learning environment.[6], [7] With this in mind, the program and research teams collaborated to research and then apply tenets of culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy to the curriculum to support meaningful experiences in the program for youth with various backgrounds.[8], [9]


  • Having a lead instructor and curriculum writer equipped with formal classroom experience, content expertise, and pedagogical expertise helped the program team seamlessly adapt the program curriculum and create an inclusive learning environment where all campers felt valued.
  • YESS campers most enjoyed and were most invigorated by hands-on solar and engineering activities.
  • Middle school-aged youth responded best to identity exploration activities when program leaders modeled participation and shared their experiences and when using creative activities.
  • Applying a familiar and common theme across all camp programming created a cohesive camp learning experience.
  • Middle-school-aged youth were not ready to think about careers, so camps integrated information about STEM classes and school clubs and how energy impacts campers' lives and communities.

The Research and Program teams iterated on the camp curriculum throughout the grant, using design-based research, reflection, and evaluation. The final shareable curriculum engaged campers in culturally meaningful ways and met the camp's learning objectives. Some key learnings that informed the development of the final curriculum are described below:

FIGURE 2: Culturally Relevant and Sustaining Pedagogical Principles in Action

Culturally relevant pedagogy Culturally sustaining pedagogy

Student learning: Academically rigorous activities about solar energy

Valuing community languages, practices, and ways of being: Community-building activities that opened camp each day

Cultural competence: Reflection and discussion about campers' social identities and lived experience (e.g., social identity wheel, life map)

Accountability to the community: Co-created program curriculum with local community-based organizations

Critical consciousness: Solar engineering design challenges (solar car, solar water fountain, engineering challenges) to address real-world issues and social inequalities

Curriculum that connects to cultural and linguistic histories: Culture Wheel, Humanity's Relationship to the Sun

Sustaining cultural and linguistic practices while providing access to the dominant culture: Spotlight speakers/career panel of Black, brown, and female-identifying people who work in solar-related and STEM careers

Figure 2 includes a selection of the culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogical principles the YESS curriculum incorporates and examples of camp activities that employ them.

Drawing on Local Assets for Robust Implementation

YESS's success is thanks to the collaboration and contributions of many partner organizations and individuals. YESS's two local partner youth-serving organizations, ABGC and Girls Inc., brought a unique understanding of Alameda and long-standing relationships with the camp's intended audience. In addition, ABGC provided space to host the camps, and Girls Inc. provided expertise in mentoring middle school-aged girls and gender-expansive youth. Local teachers also contributed to the camps as thought partners and instructional assistants before and during the camp sessions. In addition, local STEM professionals dedicated their time as STEM career panelists.

The YESS team's experience highlights a few key learnings about running a program that involves multiple partner organizations and collaborators:

Partnering to Sustain Program Access

The YESS program was designed with the explicit intent that at least some aspect of the program's model or curricular components would live beyond the NSF grant. Specific goals were to (1) provide partner organizations and other informal educators with a way to integrate STEM education and environmental issues into their programming more seamlessly, (2) demonstrate the potential to incorporate STEM and environmental issues into youth programs, and (3) increase the availability of culturally relevant STEM programs for middle school-aged youth.

The original camp was fully funded through the NSF grant, which included funding for staffing, materials, and space. As a result, YESS was available to youth-serving organizations without any financial barriers to participation. While neither youth-serving organization has secured funding to implement the program fully following the grant's end, the partner organizations did adopt program components that were most beneficial to them and supported each organization's goals, capacities, and program model:

YESS can also be replicated via YESS curricular resources, which are now publicly available free of charge. We Share Solar packaged the YESS STEM identity lessons into a standalone resource hosted on their website. Informal and formal educators interested in culturally relevant and sustaining STEM opportunities can access the resources at no cost and readily implement the lessons in their classrooms or programs (to access the curriculum, you'll need to sign up for We Share Solar's free solar learning portal, then navigate to the curriculum sequence on "Developing Student STEM Identity").

The YESS research team is also preparing a research manuscript for the informal STEM research community. The manuscript will highlight additional learnings from YESS and be disseminated across the field to help others design and implement informal learning experiences that are culturally relevant and sustaining and promote positive STEM identity development among youth.


As the NSF grant ends, the YESS team leaves the field with an informative, meaningful, and culturally relevant and sustaining curriculum developed and refined through ongoing reflection, iteration, and program improvement. The curriculum is now a resource for an informal, hands-on STEM education experience that can be adapted for different audiences and remain relevant; the partners' ongoing interest in and use of the program showcases how local youth-serving organizations can maintain and integrate STEM education and environmental issues into their programming, effectively increasing the availability of culturally relevant and sustaining STEM programs.

The YESS program has had and will continue to have a positive impact on Alameda youth, the Alameda community, and beyond. We hope educators can incorporate these learnings into future culturally relevant and sustaining STEM experiences, empowering youth to address local and global environmental challenges.

Thanks & Gratitude

We extend our deepest gratitude to the many individual and organizational partners who dedicated space, ideas, insights, knowledge, and time to creating this hands-on, culturally relevant, and sustaining STEM opportunity for Black, brown, and female-identifying youth. You have made YESS camps a success. Special thanks to:

This post was written by Joanna Totino1, Rachel Kramer2, Evan Gattozzi2, Valeria Fike Romero1, Melissa Collins1, Michael Arnold2, Alex Sanchez1, and Devin Cavero1.

  1. The Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley
  2. Informing Change


[A] The Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley
[B] Informing Change

[1] Gilmartin, S. K., Li, E., Aschbacher, P., & McPhee, C. (2005). The relationship between interest in physical science/engineering, science class experiences, and family contexts: Variations by gender and race/ethnicity among secondary students. American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, Canada.

[2] National Science Board (2018). Science & Engineering Indicators 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dawson, E. (2014). "Equity in Informal Science Education: Developing an Access and Equity Framework for Science Museums and Science Centres." Studies in Science Education 50 (2): 209-247. doi:10.1080/03057267.2014.957558.

[5] Herrenkohl, L. & Bevan, B. (2017). What science and for whom?: An introduction to our focus on equity and out-of-school learning. Science Education. 101. 517-519. 10.1002/sce.21284.

[6] Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The Theory and Practice of Culturally Relevant Education: A Synthesis of Research Across Content Areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206.

[7] Brown-Jeffy, S., & Cooper, J. E. (2011). Toward a Conceptual Framework of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: An Overview of the Conceptual and Theoretical Literature. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38, 65-84.

[8] Ladson-Billings, Gloria. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3. (Autumn, 1995), pp. 465-491.

[9] Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.