UCLA Students Promote STEM Education in Local Schools


By Stefanie Pietkiewicz | October 15, 2014

Building Engineers and Mentors (BEAM) is a UCLA student group dedicated to providing K-8 students across Los Angeles with engaging, hands-on activities that promote interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  Third year electrical engineering student Tong Mu, who serves as the chapter treasurer, explains why BEAM is an important program and shares why she enjoys volunteering.

Originally founded at UC Berkeley in 2008, BEAM was established at UCLA in 2010 by Perry Roth-Johnson, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE). Today, the organization is supported by the MAE department and is open to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing both STEM and non-STEM majors. Additionally, UCLA students participating in BEAM can enroll in a 2-unit course – MAE 194 – for credit.

BEAM aims to increase the diversity of students pursuing careers in STEM disciplines. In 2013, the student organization partnered with The Center for Translational Applications of Nanoscale Multiferroic Systems (TANMS), who shares the same goal.

“TAMNS reaches out to high school and college undergrads, while BEAM reaches out to K-8 students so in partnering with them, we could reach all age groups. TANMS has been very supportive of us as an organization, and they provide us with funding as well,” Mu noted.

The club meets once a week to plan the lesson that will be taught on-site. During this time, older members help newer members develop public speaking skills and understand how to teach the lesson plan effectively.

BEAM visits four schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles each week. “Currently, we’re serving Melrose Elementary School, Pio Pico Middle School, Playa Vista Elementary School, and Crescent Heights Elementary School. We mainly go to underprivileged schools with large minority populations. While we focus on promoting STEM, more generally we want the students we mentor to go to college and grad school,” Mu explained.

BEAM has created dozens of unique lesson plans designed to spark an interest in science, technology and engineering. Lesson plans include making stomp rockets, programming robots made from LEGO pieces, and building electrical circuits with Play-Doh.

“Last quarter we had this really memorable site visit where the kids made rollercoasters only using tape, pipe insulation, and marbles. The activity taught the students about friction, energy conservation, and kinetic and potential energy. Whenever a marble made it the end of the track, everyone screamed. Even I was screaming when it finally worked!” said Mu. “I think part of the reason why I liked that lesson so much is that it taught students about the engineering process. The students designed a roller coaster and then had to test it over and over.”

BEAM recently held an end-of-the-year event at UCLA and invited students and their parents to learn more about the university. “We gave them lab tours and showed them around campus to increase their interest in attending college and pursuing a STEM major,” said Mu.

Mu fell in love with science at a young age. She hopes to inspire that same feeling in elementary and middle school students through her participation in BEAM. 

“My dad is a physicist, and he would take me to his lab when I was younger, which got me really interested in science and engineering. These days, there are a lot of standardized testing rules, and teachers strictly adhere to them. I feel that kids are not getting enough hands-on science and technology experience to get them interested in STEM fields. That’s why BEAM is great.”

Over the past several years, STEM has become a huge buzzword in the world of education. However, students in the United States continue to lag behind students in many East Asian and European countries in math and science literacy, and the Department of Education reports that only 16% of high school seniors want to pursue STEM careers. Add that to the fact that STEM jobs are growing at nearly double the rate of non-STEM jobs and college graduates with STEM majors earn the most money after graduation, and it becomes clear that STEM education is a necessity. Thanks to groups like BEAM, students get early exposure to STEM, which can stimulate their interest in science and math and ultimately lead to future academic and professional success.