Empowering Students and Educators through Service Learning

By Cindy Zavala, Education Programs Associate, NCLR 

Our service-learning education program, Cultura, Aprendizaje, Servicio, Acción (CASA), is tackling serious issues. The goal of the fifth annual CASA Institute this year focused on how to equip middle school youth with the appropriate skills to identify a need in the Latino community and then develop an academic service plan to address that need.

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Students from seven states gathered at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles earlier this month to take on this challenge. And, thanks to the generous support and investment of State Farm, the Institute was able to host attendees from 12 different educational programs in Colorado, Texas, Oregon, Tennessee, Maryland, California, and Florida. Among them were students and teachers from East Austin College Prep, Bert Corona Leadership Institute, Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, and Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter Middle School, to name a few.

The Cultural Bag

A major part of the CASA Institute included lessons on the service-learning cycle as well as an array of cultural activities. One such activity included the Cultural Bag. To highlight cultural awareness, students were tasked with creating a bag filled with phrases and drawings that displayed their interpretations of their own identity and culture.

“A cultural bag is something that each of us carries around all the time. The content of our bag defines who we are,” said Magdalena Mireles, NCLR California Regional Office Manager.

“Your race, ethnicity, age, gender, physical characteristics, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, level of education, or religion are all traits that can go in your bag.” Mireles led the youth track in this year’s Institute.

As students filled their bags with their identity traits, they began to think about how their culture shaped their personality and life experiences.

Fun and Robotics

 Los Angeles made a perfect setting for a movie screening. Attendees were treated to a private viewing of the highly acclaimed documentary Underwater Dreams, written and directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña.

Underwater Dreams tells the story of sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they built an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and ended up defeating engineering powerhouse Massachusetts Institute of Technology at their competition. Not only were these boys only in high school when they entered the college competition but they were also living in poverty and faced many struggles to which several CASA attendees could relate.

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Drawing on inspiration from the film, students were guided by DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Girls in building their own robots. DIY Girls works with young girls and focuses on helping them be successful in technology and engineering. One of their founders is also a Latina!

The interactive lesson guided students in using a motor, a battery, and a container to build a motorized robot that they could then take home.

The CASA Institute was a great learning experience for both students and educators. Students appreciated the opportunity to travel and for many it was there first time visiting Los Angeles. The change of setting and the new activities students and teachers participated in left them motivated and inspired.

“Super excited to see all the great ideas we will bring back to school!” said Angelica Lara of East Austin College Prep.

We’re hopeful educators like Lara left Los Angeles ready to take the steps and use the lessons they learned to support their students throughout the year in engaging with the CASA curriculum.

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