The Katherine Johnson STEM Academy is leveraging a Google grant to produce STEM wizards with strong people skills
Story By Shanee Edwards | Photos by Kyle Hunsberger
Playa Vista resident Kyle Hunsberger is the principal of the Katherine Johnson STEM Academy, just around the corner in Westchester. Part of the Loyola Marymount University Family of Schools, it serves as the LAUSD resident middle school for students in the Playa Vista, Playa del Rey and Westchester communities. If you’re not familiar with the acronym STEM, it stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Integrating these disciplines has been part of an overall push in education in the United States to meet the needs of a competitive workforce.
You may remember the school’s namesake, NASA engineer Katherine Johnson, was portrayed by actress Taraji P. Henson in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures.” But it’s not the school’s Hollywood connection that’s exciting. It’s the connection to Silicon Beach — specifically to Google.
Last fall the school became the recipient of a $50,000 grant from Google through their Tides Foundation to build out a STEM lab on campus. Hunsberger says the grant was made possible through a connection at Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office.
“[Bonin] had toured our school,” he says, “and knew that we were making STEM available to all our students. He’s the one who recommended us.”
Hunsberger is happy to report the partnership has been flourishing, providing students with unique opportunities.
Last spring a group of 25 students were invited to participate in a “Diversity in STEM” panel at Google’s local Spruce Goose campus. Students were also invited to the Google I/O Extension event at the company’s Venice headquarters, the Binoculars Building.
“Two of our students went. We set up a table and they demonstrated their fuel cell car they created in their math class and presented some artwork they made with micro-robots. It was a cool event where people could learn about our school and see what our kids are doing,” Hunsberger says.
As for the $50,000 grant, he’s taking the long view on spending the money.
“Right now we’ve spent about half of it outfitting the STEM lab with instruction materials that are really going to help our students achieve: drones, Go-Pros, computing equipment, robotics equipment, Makey Makeys, Arduinos. I’m still learning myself what all the resources can be used for, thanks to our LMU curriculum developer who has done a tremendous job launching and organizing it.”
Hunsberger adds that he really gets the sense that Google wants to make an impact on the younger generation: “Some companies invest in a school, but it’s a one-and-done thing. But with Google I’ve felt like it’s a sustained commitment since we got into partnership with them just over a year ago — I’ve been thrilled.”
The grant will also help the Katherine Johnson STEM Academy buttress its dedication to social-emotional learning.
“Why we started as a school was to give kids a clear connection between STEM and social and emotional learning, even though that doesn’t necessarily sound intuitive.”
Hunsberger says it’s one thing to teach kids to graph parabolas or design code, but STEM is more: It’s real-world problem solving.
“Ultimately problem solving happens in the context of community. Communities are made up of all kinds of people. Before we opened the school two years ago, we realized that if we don’t focus on social and emotional learning, all of our focus on STEM won’t go anywhere because if I just produce a bunch of robots who are good at math but can’t have a human connection, there’s no context in which they’re going to succeed. You need to know how to work on a team, get feedback from a peer or handle conflict.”
He says the nexus of STEM and social-emotional learning comes through an educational approach called problem-based learning. It’s where kids select problems they care about and work to solve them.
“Everybody gets excited about it. I was in a math class today where the teacher connected the Pythagorean Theorem to disaster relief. All 26 kids were 100% engaged.”
Find out more about the Katherine Johnson STEM Academy at kjstemacademy.org.