STEM SUPERHEROES: Meet Ms. Moreno, the 4th grade teacher changing the way parents see technology

112th Street STEAM Academy is an elementary school located in one of the poorest areas of Los Angeles. For most of its 50 year history, 112th Street has been a typical public elementary school, but faced the additional challenges that come with serving an area affected by generational poverty and disenfranchisement. The school recently became a STEAM Academy – which means they’re committed to aligning their curriculum to state and national science standards, closely engaging science teachers, and are eligible for additional funding for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) programs.

We’re proud to be working with 112th Street Academy this year as part of the AI Family Challenge. Led by Criss Moreno, a 4th grade science teacher at 112th Street, the AI Family program is very popular at the school, an achievement in itself, as Ms. Moreno told us that the school struggles with parent engagement. Generally, at events or activities targeted at parents she would see the same 10 parents over and over again. For the AI Family Challenge, however, Ms. Moreno recruited 20 families, all of whom have been actively engaged – “it’s the best parent turnout we’ve had. We never get that many parents in a room.”

A family building at a Saturday AI Family Challenge session

Ms. Moreno has gotten creative with incentives for parents to show up on Saturday mornings – she uses some of the AIFC partner grant money to provide meals for the program sessions, or for gift cards families can use at supermarkets or restaurants in the area. It’s a true community effort – there’s a volunteer parent liaison who translates the sessions into Spanish, and the school janitors have also donated 2-3 hour blocks of their time to provide the maintenance coverage necessary to run the program outside of standard school hours.

Even with the school community giving their all to the program, there are plenty of challenges to overcome. The digital divide is significant – not many families have access to computers or smartphones, and there is a lot of ground to cover to get them comfortable with using technology to create email and curiosity machine accounts. But over time the families have gotten more comfortable with technology, and Ms. Moreno and 112th Street have worked to create an environment at their sessions where every family member is welcome. There are plenty of snacks and activities to entertain younger siblings or cousins who might be too little to stay engaged in the projects the entire time, and plenty of hands-on help for younger kids so parents can focus on building the projects together with their kids, rather than having to wrangle the youngest family members and try to build all at once. “That’s the key, parents doing things with their students. Everyone is engaged together. That’s the strength of the program.” Ms. Moreno also told us that she thinks that’s the appeal for the parents too – the saturday sessions are “a nice way to engage with their kids, not just at home.”

The parents at 112th Street Elementary agree. Armariee Paschal has been attending the AI Family Challenge sessions with her children, and told us that the program has been especially powerful for her son Johnny, a special needs student. “I can’t believe how much I saw him blossom when he started playing around with motors and circuits. It made me see his unique ability to make objects work! It was really motivating for him, too. Most kids labeled [special needs] don’t get a chance to shine like this.”

Armariee and her children show off pieces of an engineering design challenge they’re building

Armariee also explained that working so closely with Johnny and allowing him to take the lead increased his confidence and improved everyone’s understanding of technology and AI. “AI was completely new to me – I had no idea how robotics worked. I’m learning from my son now, it’s incredible.”

For Ms. Moreno running this program and supporting families like Armariee and Johnny is what she described as a mission of love. “I would have done it for free. I see the value of these projects. Experiential learning is so important.” As a science teacher, Ms. Moreno is committed to teaching all of her students foundational skills like math and reading, but while also teaching them science, allowing science and exploration to be the lens through which her students develop literacy and numeracy skills. She can see that impact that this program and the extra time to explore science and technology concepts alongside their parents has on students as well – “that was the best part, that the connections the kids coming on Saturday [could make], they would become student leaders in class.”

We stay in touch with Ms. Moreno – as one of the first sites to sign up, she’s usually one of the first to share her progress reports and photos of families building as the program continues. In all of the photos you can see that the families are just as excited as she is.

Showing off a carefully-made circuit

The AI Family Challenge is dependent on science teachers, educators, coaches, and leaders like Criss Moreno, whose excitement is infectious, and who are determined to give their students and parents the best learning experience possible.

Support educators like Criss. Help us raise $150,000 before January 1 by donating to our end of year fundraiser. $150,000 means that we can support 30 more sites like 112th Street STEAM Academy to engage parents and their children in the AI Family Challenge. Learn more about how you can make a difference today.


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