Jen's Interview - Staff Stories - STEM/STEAM

Outdoor Education - Open Natural Public Spaces


An Interview with Jen Aguilar

We recently sat down with Jen Aguilar, our Youth Program Manager & Eastside Explorer lead, to talk about how the program came to be and where she envisions the success will take it for years to come. 

How did the Eastside Explorers get developed?

We thought very carefully about what populations we weren't connecting with at Veggielution and an age group that was consistently coming up for us was middle school. We see a lot of younger kids at the Youth Garden with their parents, and we would get some high school students coming out through Community Farmer, but we really felt we needed a better connection with our middle school age students, especially those in our neighborhood. So, the first step was to propose a program to serve as that avenue to connect students with the farm, our staff, and our community. When the Applied Materials Foundation approached us, we responded with a big project proposal, and were beyond excited when they agreed to support us. From the end of spring and through the summer we have been collaborating with staff, our strategic consultant, and other community partners who have knowledge and experience with field trips, to help us develop a sustainable and successful program for our organization.

How did you choose what schools you were going to partner with?

For Year 1, we decided we would be able to best serve our community by partnering with middle schools in our neighborhood. We had a number of schools on our radar, particularly those from East San José that had visited us in previous years. Proximity has been a major factor in selecting our partner schools, because we want to students to feel connected to - not only our organization - but their neighborhood community. So the question came up, how do we choose those schools? Proximity was one of them...are they close to us...can they walk they need transportation. I immediately thought of Ocala Steam academy because they reached out the year before and had wanted to bring their classes for tours. Their 8th grade classes have an environmental theme as part of their steam curriculum and coming to Veggielution supports that learning process but it also brings them to a place that is very close to their school, so it really just makes sense for them to come here. Last year as well, they were starting their own school garden and that was something I had the opportunity to see. I got to back to their school and see the work that they had done and I really just enjoyed that whole process and how invested the students and teachers were in the garden. So they were on my radar as one of the first schools that I wanted to establish a partnership with. We have more in mind for the rest of year one, but that’s ultimately how we ended up with Ocala.

How does Eastside Explores help support what the middle schoolers are learning in the classroom?

A lot of the schools around here are working with STEM and STEAM learning plans or curriculum and basically it’s emphasizing science, technology, engineering, math, and with STEAM arts. So these teachers are working with these learning goals and a component of that is the NEXT Generation Science standards in addition to the common core standards for the other subjects. So believe it or not outdoor education is probably one of the most flexible way to support all of these learning standards in these subject areas. I had to take some time to learn and review what these standards are because working as an outdoor educator we have so much more flexibility than some of the classroom teachers. I spent a lot of time talking with people who were more familiar with them to me understand how to tie that to the stuff we are doing on the farm and what I learned was that everything we do on the farm and in the garden ties into these standards so easily. Bringing students to the farm, takes them outside, to the outdoor living classroom. They have a sensory experience that is out of the ordinary and is likely to capture their attention and interest. There are opportunities to interact with their environment and fellow classmates, be curious, ask questions, and consider problems and solutions.

What’s the importance of STEM and STEAM in East San Jose´?

When we are looking at the schools to come and partner with verses some of the schools coming from the greater San Jose´area who are maybe coming from neighborhoods that have more resources. We want students in East San José, regardless of any resource limitations, to be able to participate in enriched STEM/STEAM curriculum activities. Gardening and farming is used as a teaching tool in many private and small schools in Los Gatos, Mountain View, Los Altos, and so on. East San José students deserve to have access to the same experiential learning opportunities as their peers in the greater Silicon Valley area. We want to level playing field when it comes time to utilizing critical thinking abilities and other relevant job skills in their future STEM/STEAM careers.

What are some of your goals for year 1?

So year one is our pilot year. Not only are we establishing our activity tracks, developing curriculum that works with our farm and connects to the goals of veggielution, but we are also establishing those partnerships with those schools we have a priority with. Then come year two, our goal for next fall would be  that we would like to open up this field trip opportunity to the greater San Jose´ area. So middle schoolers coming from elsewhere would be able to connect with the farm as well. The purpose of this pilot year is to establish a sustainable program that matches our organization’s capacity. In year two (Fall 2017), we will have the opportunity to branch out and offer our activities to classes beyond our partner schools, as well as expand our curriculum and activities into multiple tracks.

How does Eastside Explorers fit into Veggielution’s Mission and Goals?

The staff has spent a significant amount of time over the past year talking about how to better connect to our East San Jose neighborhood. We are in an incredible spot in this city as an urban farm. There is so much that this neighborhood has to offer and we want to be better connected to that. Eastside explorers directly supports that goal because we are not only developing partnerships with schools in the community but we are bringing out that age group to the farm in hopes that they are learning about us and seeing ways that they can return. So whether it’s bringing their family members to the YG or coming back to purchase affordable produce at our farm stand. There are so many different ways that they can plug into the community here. By bringing them out for a field trip the first time will be a fun experience which will bring them back. Since we are in their neighbor and so close to where they live, it’s more realistic to think that they actually will return with their families.

How was the first class?

Last Wednesday we brought out one of the first classes from OCALA STEAM Academy. Realistically, anyone that what works with kids, they know that middle school age kids are kind of daunting to work with because you never know how interested they are going to be. I have to say that it was a fantastic experience. Immediately when the students arrived I could feel their energy and excitement to be out of the classroom and to be somewhere new. Through each of the activities, even though it was a long day, they stayed so well engaged and even at the very end before we were breaking for lunch they all had smiles on their faces and had things to share about what they enjoyed. It definitely confirmed that all the hard work we have put into this program has been well worth it, and this confirmation with get stronger with each new class that comes out to the farm.

Staff Stories

Colleen Hotchkiss - Farm Manager

Growing up in Redwood City and attending a small magnet school for most of elementary and middle school, I had quite a few opportunities to participate in outdoor education as a kid. I have plenty of great memories from our class trip to Año Nuevo in second grade to see the elephant seals, our week at Jones Gulch in fifth grade where we got to kiss banana slugs and join the mud club, and a sixth grade adventure in Yosemite that featured one of my first encounters with snow. All of these experiences that I had through school had a positive impact on me, and were a welcome relief from the indoor classroom. Looking back though, from my current vantage point as someone who has chosen farming as a career path, I see one set of experiences I had beyond the structure of school as particularly formative for me.

Almost every year since I can remember, my family has spent Thanksgiving at my aunt's house in Walker Basin, about an hour outside of Bakersfield. She lives on a ranch pretty much in the middle of nowhere with several horses, a couple pot bellied pigs, a goat, some chickens, and two dogs. Growing up, my sister and I would spend Thanksgiving weekend sitting in front of the fireplace doing puzzles, playing on the porch, and feeding the animals. But our favorite part of visiting my aunt's ranch was going out to the big red barn behind the house and taking turns on the swing hung from rafters more than 30 feet high. 

My grandpa was a mechanic, and after he retired in the early 90's, he spent time at the ranch keeping busy with various projects, including building that barn. As a kid, I loved going out to the barn to play on the swing while my grandpa, Pop, tinkered with this or that – fixing power tools or tuning up the dirt bike. He'd go up the hill with my sister and I to teach us how to fly kites, or rig up a zipline between some trees. He even took me on my first tractor ride, on the “digger” he would use to move dirt or clear boulders. Looking back, it's interesting that although these experiences didn't seem life-changing at the time – after all they were just yearly routines – they foreshadowed my future career and my love for the physical, tangible, outdoor work that I find so fulfilling. Pop taught me an appreciation for working with my hands, and the power of knowing how to fix and build things. When I work outside under the sun, and especially when I drive the tractor, I feel connected to him and to those early memories forged in the barn that he built.

Madeline Owen - Community Engagement Coordinator

Amongst the deep roots of Maryland’s tall oak trees lie the memories of my twiggy-legged, towheaded days. Now heavily packed beneath decomposing leaves, my footprints once scored the dark earth. The Woods were my playground. My brothers and I spent afternoons catching glimpses of spotted fawns across wispy green clearings and listening for woodpeckers jabbing their way to dinner. The clamor of my mom’s farm bell rang us into our own dinner at nightfall. In The Woods, the noises of the road would dissipate alongside my elementary school troubles.

I remember summers the most. Scorching days marked by steaming tar and snow cone stained t-shirts would chase us into the retreat of stretching oaks. Never free to go alone, I followed the dirt stained sneakers of an older brother down the familiar wooded path to our secret summer pool. Soggy soil cushioned our steps as we raced to the bubbling creek bed. The water was always icy, snowpack from the Appalachians drained into the creek, a we’d rinse our filthy, sun stained toes in the steely water. Seeking deeper pools, we’d cross precarious pebbles, slipping our way to a final splash, we’d sink into deep water.

Most days, we’d bring a haphazardly assembled lunch. Perched on leveled boulders, we ate sloppy turkey and cheddar sandwiches with a ripe peach or a few bloated berries. Once, we made our way to the creek’s rippling waters with the long links of a fishing pole, eager to begin our fishing careers. Or maybe we always just said we would.

The Woods were never about the trip. In the afternoons of dark shade, streaked with peaks of sunlight, my brothers became my closest friends. Siblinghood was stamped across the seams of our overlapping genes on weaving paths of The Woods. With the simple suggestion of “let’s go to the creek!,” I knew family was more than a shared last name.

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