CSUMB and UC Santa Cruz bring STEM conference to Monterey

Judit Camacho at STEM Education Central Coast Conference

Keynote speaker Judit Camacho opens the joint CSUMB/UC Santa Cruz STEM Education Central Coast Conference. | Photo by Mark Muckenfuss

February 6, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss

It began with a storm. A virtual one. 

As if taking a cue from the weather outside the Monterey Conference Center on Saturday, Judit Camacho showed a ballroom full of people how to create the sound of wind by rubbing their hands together, how to make it sprinkle by snapping their fingers and how, by slapping their thighs, they could make it pour. 

It was a light-hearted way to open the Feb. 5, STEM Education Central Coast Conference. Now in its third year, the event, which gathers prospective and practicing educators of science, technology, engineering and math, is a cooperative effort by Cal State Monterey Bay and UC Santa Cruz.

Camacho’s intro to her keynote address was also an indication that her talk would be a little non-traditional. She didn’t talk about test tubes and wires or molecular research. Instead, she focused on allowing kids to interact with the environment and to form an emotional bond with the natural world. 

An advocate for garden-based education, Camacho is the co-executive director at Life Lab in Santa Cruz. The organization provides lab instructors for partnering schools, field trips to farm sites, and summer camps that get kids digging in the dirt and interacting with plants. It reaches 20,000 students annually.

“What’s incredible and what keeps us going is children’s faces and what happens to a child when they’re connected with a garden,” Camacho told the group of just over 200 attendees. “The land is the real teacher.”

Science, she told the group, is also important for society.

Science and math are gateways to higher education,” she said. “Whether students become scientists or not, we know that science is part of a fully functioning democracy. We all need to have science literacy.”

Her message resonated with many in the audience.

Peggy Toletta, education specialist at Elkhorn Slough Reserve, said she likes the fact that the science curriculum is changing to get students more involved in their surroundings.

“The next-generation science standards promote kids getting outside and doing investigations,” Toletta said. “You are the scientist. You’re going out and discovering and learning to do that process.”

The conference, she said, is an important mechanism in making that happen for students in the tri-county region. 

“I’m here to connect with teachers,” she said. “We teach them about watersheds and wetlands and what our scientists are doing to preserve the habitat. [The conference] introduces new teachers to some of the options out there they might not be aware of.”

Conference co-organizer Corin Slown, an associate professor of biology and chemistry at CSUMB, said most STEM conferences are aimed at a much larger audience. She and her colleagues felt a more targeted approach was needed. 

“I think why this was essential, was to create STEM connections locally,” Slown said. “That connectivity is why it’s so valuable.”  

The conference theme was sustainability, and breakout sessions covered climate classroom curriculum, career paths, regional food systems, science fairs, math games and more.

Participating organizations included the Monterey Bay Aquarium, CalRecycle, Elkhorn Slough Foundation, Monterey Bay Area Mathematics Project and the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation’s NOYCE grant, UCSC’s Cal Teach program and the CSU’s Math and Science Teacher Initiative.

More than a dozen school districts from the region participated. Numbers were up by about 20 percent over last year’s attendance, Slown said, and nearly three times the 2022 number.

We’re growing, for sure,” she said. “We have this really lovely group of people that works together to make this possible.”