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Episode 4: Out of School Learning with Benjamin Dickow  

In 2020, over 30 STEM organizations came together to provide collaborative learning opportunities for Los Angeles students. As a result, over 80,000 and counting K-8 students have participated in live, online, and in-person programs that engage students in STEM learning opportunities. We’re honored to welcome Ben Dickow, the President and Executive Director of Columbia Memorial Space Center and Leader of Expand LA. Ben led the nonprofit space museum’s strategic vision, operations, and sustainability plan and hands-on STEM learning center to ignite a community of creative and critical thinkers.   

The following transcript has been redacted and edited for quality and educational purposes.    

Nati Rodriguez [01:23]  

I know that you’re wearing multiple hats. Would you mind sharing a bit about your background and how you got into this work?   

Ben Dickow [01:33] 

Sure. Like most people, you probably get back into this thing, and all of a sudden, it becomes your life’s work. I went to the University of Chicago as an undergrad and was looking for a part-time job while going to school. This was my junior year, and the UFC is just a few blocks away from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. So I went to apply for a job. I ended up getting a career in the education department, writing science books – activity books and developing curriculum as a part-timer. After graduation, they offered me a full-time job, and I really fell in love with the field and what was going on at the time and just stuck with it. I think I’ve said this before about museums. There was wild west in the mid to late nineties because they were trying to figure out their role in society with the internet coming.   

There was a lot of hand-wringing about – oh, it’s going to destroy museums. I got in at a lucky time because I could do many things as a young professional, from exhibit design to curriculum development, to management, very early in my career. I was very fortunate for that. I’ve moved around different fields, very much rooted in STEM education. I’ve worked at significant museums and worked with the National Science Foundation. I’ve been on the for-profit side as the Creative Director of a design company, designing museums and exhibits worldwide. I was on a PBS science show. I’ve done science communication, just all kinds of things, but it all started with that one part-time job in Chicago.   

Nati Rodriguez [03:31]  

I love that you shared about the internet and how that impacted your work in museums. I assume there’s a similar change with the pandemic in the last two years. What has changed in your career, and what do you think is here to stay?   

Ben Dickow [03:50] 

Yes, it’s very similar. There are a couple of answers to that. I think the short answer is that when the pandemic started – and this was pretty much across the board, for the Space Center, it was March 16th, 2020. For most of my colleagues, it was around that same day – we closed operations, we closed ourselves off to the public, and like the rest of the world, we hunkered down and locked in. And we’re all hands-on science museums. We’re not necessarily very object-based, so a lot of our stuff is about the social connection between people, between visitors and our spaces, between the visitors and us, and between visitors and these very tactile experiences. We spent about a month or so trying to figure out what we would do and then moved online. Pretty quickly, we developed some online expertise on how to deliver programming.   

I remember the first program was our summer camp for 2020. I reallocated some funds just to buy a bunch of equipment. We became a TV production studio, and it’s been very rewarding. A couple of different things, I’m in LA, and we are in the media capital of the world. We’re trying to figure out how to do what professionals go to school for. There’s a huge industry here in LA, but because we were isolated because of the pandemic, we couldn’t rely on a lot of outside expertise. We had to figure it out on our own, but it’s been great. We went virtual. We didn’t open up in person until this past July. So, from March 2020 until July 1st, 2021, we’re doing it all online, but I’m happy to say that my staff is awesome. 

We could engage the same amount of people online as we usually do in-person, sold-out registrations for all of our online classes. It was great. In that way, it is like when I first started because my staff had to become media producers and rethink what they do, not just the content or the pedagogy or the curriculum, but rethink the tools that they became experts at. And it’s been incredible. I know some of my staff are doing this more and more on the side as side work. It’s just an incredible experience to see, from my position, the staff really rally behind each other and make this happen.   

Nati Rodriguez [07:58] 

I know you mentioned that one of the benefits of having this virtual content now is your reach, that you were able to have people that may not live close to the Center or be able to make that trip. How do you see that audience either continuing to grow or the overlap between the in-person and online visitor?  

Ben Dickow [08:29]  

We’re going to figure that out. So, the online audience, we could get a pretty good idea of where some people were coming from. Certainly, our home audience were the people who knew us ahead of time. They knew what we were offering. We’ve only been at the in-person now for a little less than six months, and we’re still trying to figure out where that overlap is. So, I’ll say that, broadening this out away from just the Space Center. Still, I work within the out-of-school time learning realm or informal learning and pre-pandemic we already impacted learners, the public, for a much larger time throughout a person’s life than just a school.   

Right. So, if you’re thinking about a student who’s in school, let’s be generous, and they spend like 8% to 10% of their life in school. All that other time of their lives, they’re learning STEM, but they’re learning it outside the school environment. That’s where we come in, or the out-of-school time learning comes in. So, the beauty of that is now we have this whole other tool to work with people out of school and work with people out of school now anytime; it’s not just who can make it to the Space Center after school or who can make it to a weekend program or during a holiday program or something like that. So, conceivably, kids could start their day with the Space Center program online, and between the time they leave the classroom and get picked up, they could be working with us without ever walking through the door.   

So, in addition to the overlap, as far as location, we’re interested to find out how people are using this stuff now that we’ve generated this content and it’s accessible. How are people using it in a way that enhances our role as a legitimate, just as important educational experience as the classroom experience?   

Nati Rodriguez [11:10]  

I was just, again, processing the fact that you actually maintained your audience or even grew it online. That’s pretty impressive.   

Nati Rodriguez [12:02]

I want to take a step back for those people that are not in LA. What is the Columbia Memorial Space Center? What can people expect to see there or experience?   

Ben Dickow [12:12]  

That’s a great question. I should have started with that. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is a space museum and hands-on science learning center. Think of your typical science museum, and we’re it. We’re just a little smaller. We’re not the biggest in town, but we provide pretty much all the same programming. We have a museum facility where people can come in and work with hands-on interactive exhibits and see some objects’ displays. The Columbia Memorial Space Center is located in Downey, California, about 10 miles outside of downtown LA. NASA built all of the Apollo capsules that went to the moon and all the space shuttles. We’re located on this huge former NASA facility that now is mostly a shopping center. Still, we have an incredible amount of artifacts from basically the whole life of the space program.   

Starting in post-war, well, actually pre-World War II. Our site goes back to airplane building in the twenties, and then right after World War II, we became this Center for rocket research and then transitioned in the early sixties to Apollo and then the shuttle. We have all of that history and a lot of artifacts from that time period. You can come here, and we will bring some of that stuff out and have it on display in the museum. Again, we have a lot of hands-on things. We also have Southern California’s only Challenger Learning Center. There are about 40 of them worldwide, but they are immersive simulators of mission control in a spacecraft. We take groups on two-hour missions to the moon, Mars, and other places. It’s all supported by this national or international network of centers.   

So that’s on-site. We also have a hands-on robotics lab, the only public robotics lab in LA, just lots of fun stuff. So that’s our physical site, but we also do a ton of programs, some on-site and some offsite, and everything from summer camp programs to outreach programs. We have an early childhood program we collaborate with CalTech on. The mission of the Space Center is to ignite communities of creative and critical thinkers, and a real main thrust and the strategic task of the Space Center is to be a 21st-century museum truly. We value the experiences outside of our building just as much as things that happen inside. It’s very important for us to look at the Space Center facility as just headquarters, but not the end all be all, and to get out where people are. If we’re working with somebody in a neighborhood in South LA, it doesn’t matter whether they come back and turn into a visitor to the Space Center. They’re going to get a high-quality space center experience wherever they are because LA is hard to get to, and there are all kinds of barriers to accessing museum experiences. We want to go where people are and give high-quality, valuable experiences, no matter where people are. I want to encourage everybody to visit, but I also want to encourage everybody to contact us because we love to go out to where you are.

Nati Rodriguez [16:03] 

That’s great. I did not know that the Center had the only public robotics lab in LA; I feel like they should be everywhere.   

Ben Dickow [16:15] 

I agree. You know, I hope I’m right. So far, we have not found anyone like us, but as a visitor, you can walk into our robotics lab and work on, build and run around with one of our robots. I think there are probably libraries that have that too, but not a dedicated space for it.   

Nati Rodriguez [16:37]

That’s great. The early childhood works with CalTech. What and what does that look like?   

Ben Dickow [16:45] 

We co-developed a program for 0-4-year-olds with the CalTech Early Childhood Center. It’s like a Parent & Me type of experience where parents are invited to come in early in the morning and register for these blocks. I think we run about three blocks of classes a day in the mornings, and it’s for units of about 10 weeks. We’ve got an early childhood portion of the building, and our staff works with the little kids to practice and discover early STEM skills with their parents there or with their caregivers there. So, often we’ll start with a STEM storytime and have all the kids sit down and share out and do five minutes or maybe a quick little story that’s got some STEM things, maybe it’s about light or something like that.   

The kids go off, and it’s very hands-on, and they interact with the tools around lights or wind or something like that. It’s all about getting to basic skills and laying that foundation for future STEM, both STEM, enthusiasm, and for STEM skill-building and things like that. Like several of our programs, we’ve been doing this on-site for a number of years, and now we’re ready to start sending it out places. We’ve got this great curriculum. I have this stuff that’s skilled in this stuff. Now we want to start growing little franchises of this, or little clubs or something like that, in neighborhoods that would want it and are interested and that might need it. Hopefully, we can partner with some community organizations and get the early childhood program out there.   

Nati Rodriguez [18:46]  

That’s great. My next question was going to be around your comments about getting out of the building and going where people are. What, what does that look like? I know you mentioned early childhood work. Is there anything else the Space Center is working on to get out?   

Ben Dickow [19:02]  

It’s not as easy because there are still a lot of COVID restrictions, but before COVID, we would partner up with a lot of community groups and bring what we do out there. One of our visions is to spread science clubs throughout Southern California and greater LA. We’ve partnered up with YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and low-income housing units or providers, and we’ll come in and bring a science club in a box with a bunch of different materials and curriculum. The idea is that all of these are clubs, so the kids get a real voice in what they’re interested in, what they want to work with and discover, with the support of the Space Center staff.  

Eventually, we want to be able to train up interested parties at these partners who have these long-term relationships with the kids they work with and get them to take ownership over it. So, they can run a club, and they can do it as often as they want, once a month or every week. So, the Space Center is here as a support hub. I don’t want to be too long, but I’m passionate about this, so I’m going to talk about the origin of that.   

I’ve worked in many large museums, and we talked a lot about how we want to build these relationships with communities and get to know communities. We would constantly be spending huge amounts of money on just increasing the size of our footprint, where we were, or developing these exhibits that may not speak to all the communities we wanted to work with. I’d left the nonprofit side of the museum world and went to work as a Creative Director at a design company for museums. I missed that connection to the people. I designed something, it would go in across the country, and I never see anybody use it.   

I found it a science club in my neighborhood working with a low-income housing provider, and it was great, and it made me sorry. It was great. It was a great experience for me. The knowledge that museums can bring doesn’t, especially science. Museums are not connected to the building itself. It doesn’t have to be in a place like LA, especially where it’s difficult to get places, and kids are isolated because maybe both their parents are working and can’t drive across town or something to the few resources there. We can bring high-quality experiences out to where kids are, and that’s important. Another thing that dawned on me is that I could have a relationship with these kids over time. The science club that I founded went from 2008 to 2018, and I saw these kids from the start when they were in third grade, and now, they’re in college.   

That deep connection to learners and being part of a community and listening to what they want, what they need, and what they aspire to is the gold that science museums or science experiences should be. That underpins this whole idea here at the Space Center, getting out of our four walls and finding the science club. Whether it’s an early childhood program or girls in STEM club, that is phenomenal. We have 200 girls on a waiting list to get in, but having 200 girls on a waiting list, we need to put those girls someplace because we don’t have the space or the capacity to do it here on site. So we are looking at how we leverage partnerships within communities where kids want this stuff or how we found our remote sites. That’s important to us. That’s part of our strategy of being big but not being big. 

Nati Rodriguez [23:58]

Thank you for sharing your experience. 10 years of working with students, you mentioned the 2008 to 2018 club. I think you mentioned working with a low-income housing partner. What was, how did that work?   

Ben Dickow [24:17]  

It’s very much based on that science club that I did for ten years. I lived in a neighborhood, and I wanted to do some hands-on science with a group of kids. I heard that this low-income housing provider had an apartment building about three blocks from my apartment. I just started talking with them, and they said sure, you can try this out in one of our community spaces. It went from there. We started working with low-income housing providers at the Space Center. I knew that this was possible. I didn’t know who was interested. We got connected with one pretty big provider. I think they have 120 locations around L.A. because they are large. They have a department for recreation with the kids who live in their units, but they didn’t have a STEM program.   

They knew that the kids were interested in that. So, we talked to them and showed them what the Space Center is capable of and did a lot of training with their staff to train them in our curriculum and content. My staff would go around and do troubleshooting, and it was their educator staff delivering the programs. Before the pandemic, I think we had about 10 sites going. They all came together to make field trips here at the Space Center are culminating activities. It’s been a really great experience to work with those groups.   

Nati Rodriguez [26:23]

Can you talk about the City of STEM and the role of the Space Center in that?   

Ben Dickow [26:30]

Oh, thank you for asking. As I mentioned what the Space Center does, we’ve got exhibits in the building, and we do these programs in and out of the building and events. We founded and coordinated the City of STEM, probably the largest science or STEM initiative in greater L.A. or one of the largest. It’s become L.A. Science Festival, a month-long program that runs in April. It’s a way to showcase all the fantastic STEM resources in Southern California. The vision has three points to it. It’s really to provide an experience where anybody can walk down the street in L.A. and feel like they’re surrounded by STEM, could look at a tree and see it as almost like a STEM object and be aware of STEM around them. The second point is that awareness of STEM is all around people in that there is awareness of the STEM resources that are all around them. L.A. has these fantastic museums and out-of-school experiences that are STEM-related. Everybody must know they’re out there and they are accessible. The third point is that we want to make sure that everybody feels like they are part of the ongoing STEM story of L.A. is. I know it’s the entertainment capital of the world, but it really is a STEM town. It was founded from oil, which is very STEM-y, aerospace which is very STEM-y. Even the entertainment business has got a ton of STEM behind it. There’s all this STEM storyline that’s continuing with Space X and Virgin that is still here. We want to make sure that everybody feels like they’re part of that.   

This is not just the legacy of a certain L.A. person, but it’s everyone’s legacy here. The future legacy is everybody’s story to tell. We do a practical census. As I said, the City of STEM lasts the entire month of April. We always kick off the first Saturday with a huge traditional science festival here and in the park around our facility. The last time we did it in person, which was April of 2019, we had probably over 12,000 people onsite that day. We have about 130-150 STEM organizations as partners, from business to higher ed to other museums and other nonprofits. On that kick-off day, almost everybody has a booth, and we have science bands playing. There are some fantastic musicians in town that are very science-focused. We’ve got panels of expert speakers about how to grow a STEM kit or the latest innovation in town. We have a lot of stuff going on that day, but it’s all to kick off this month. Every day of the month, we have multiple STEM-focused events affiliated with our City of STEM. Some museums might be doing a special program on dinosaurs, and that’s a City of STEM program, but it happens the second Tuesday of the month. It’s this whole series of things. There’s a culminating thing at the end. For the past couple of years now, we have been planning the 20 and 2021 events online. We provided about 21 hours of online content live in both years.   

Now we’re excited that in April 2022, we’re planning an in-person event. The kick-off is going to be Saturday, April 2nd. I hope everybody can come down. We’ll have all those hundred-plus partners here showing off what they do. We’ve got some great stuff happening. As the month goes on, we’ll have multiple in-person things. We have enjoyed our online presence for the past couple of years. We’ll be having parallel online programming throughout the whole month also.   

Nati Rodriguez [31:06]  

I love most people think of L.A. as entertainment in some pocket of tech. So if you’re in tech, but I love this initiative of people that live in L.A., a part of what’s happening in STEM here. I know that’s an area that doesn’t get highlighted as much.   

Ben Dickow [31:31]

Right! Most people don’t think, but we have CalTech here. That’s, it’s the number one. I mean, I guess it clipped MIT a couple of years ago is like the number one STEM school that’s all located here, but nobody ever talks about it.   

Nati Rodriguez [31:48]  

Yes. What, I mean, do you have a sense of why that is too big?   

Ben Dickow [31:57] 

It could be that being also the world’s media capital, you get a lot of coverage from the media. That’s a big thing, maybe because the City of STEM, that’s our job. Is that’s the project we’re working on? It’s just. It’s a challenge that has to be met in the City of STEM is here to meet it. So, but yeah, I don’t know. I didn’t, I think Southern California is fantastic in its diversity on many levels, but the diversity of industries and things like that is pretty amazing. And, and you don’t get that in many different places. I think it’s just hard to keep up with all the different stories here.   

Nati Rodriguez [32:48]  

I think you’ve mentioned even the entertainment industry requires a lot of STEM-y. To take your word, everything behind the camera is tech.   

Ben Dickow [33:00] 

Absolutely. There’ve been, I’ve been on panels where people way smarter than I have worked out like one of the reasons why the entertainment industry is here and why aerospace is here, or was here and continues to be here. Back in the day, the land was pretty cheap. There weren’t a lot of people there. You could get these large places and build big warehouses or airfields, but it wasn’t just the weather. It’s that CalTech & UCLA have been here around for a long time. We’re churning out a lot of people with technical knowledge, and they need it. They had this great labor force that was looking for something to do. The technology involved in filmmaking helped solidify that. It’s just when it was more manual care, whereas you needed, most of that stuff is all very technical.   

You don’t see it necessarily, but you can’t produce a movie without tech, and even more so now it’s all software. The area of L.A. has had this great technical and STEM expertise for such a long time. It’s gravitated towards industries that rely on that.   

Nati Rodriguez [34:24]  

Great. I’m learning a lot about L.A.   

Ben Dickow [34:29]  

Yeah. I’ll try to cite the person who was telling me about it.   

Nati Rodriguez [34:35] 
Ben, where do you see STEM or STEAM education going in the next three to five years?   

Ben Dickow [34:46]  

Oh, man. That’s a tricky question because we are in such a transition period. I mean, COVID now I’m talking, it’s a two-year thing. Oh, it’s a year, it’s 18 months, but now I’m like not two years. So, we’re going to say that COVID has been two years. It’s upended so much stuff that I think were pieces that have been tossed in the air. We’re still drifting down. We haven’t found where we are yet, but so anyway, so I guess everything upended education. So, where is STEM education going, STEM or STEAM education in the next three to five years? I think it’s going to be a hybrid. There was too much fantastic work happening online. I feel so many people are trained on the tech teachers’ providers. I just can’t imagine that people will just completely abandon that for many, many different reasons.  

I also think there was good learning happening. I mean, people were providing really good content out there, and kids could get it. I believe that another part of STEM education in the next three to five years, which I think is this huge magnifying glass on the inequities in education, both in terms of access and resources. Obviously, out in the open became so, out in the open. STEM education has to be a part of that, really be a part of that conversation. But, then, these are not two different conversations. You can’t just say like, oh, STEM education is, oh, it’s going to be more, whatever the next refinement of inquiry-based or whatever it is. We’ve got the pedagogy for doing STEM. We got it down.   

Now we’ve seen that we can do it even online, but reacting to and seeing how STEM education crosses over into this idea of equity and inclusion and access; and diversity, frankly, that I think is the next frontier for what we do. I have to say, we think about this a lot, and I’m not just trying to puff up the Space Center. Still, we think about it a lot because we’re located in Southeast LA, an extremely dynamic, extremely diverse area of Los Angeles, which is already dynamic and diverse. We have communities that are new to the area. We have up-and-coming communities, like just all kinds of things going on down here. I think the way that they think again, like the basic pedagogy of STEM education, is good, but figuring out how to speak, sometimes literally, these emerging communities or the communities that have been there, that just hasn’t been spoken to directly before.   

I think that has always been very important, but definitely, in the past two years, it has become even more important. If that’s a pedagogical question, I think that’s the direction we should be going. I hope that we’re going to crack that nut in the next three to five years, but also this idea of figuring out the balance between in-person and online and taking advantage of all the advantages of online. Also, I’m not thinking of it as a panacea or the end all, be all. A lot of us have done online in the past year with STEM education has been trying to be very thoughtful about the social-emotional learning benefits of STEM because we couldn’t have in-person social experiences that take care of that automatically.   

In some ways, we had to be way more thoughtful about doing that in an online environment. I think that’s not going to go away and only get better.     

Nati Rodriguez [38:46 ]

Yes. Thank you for mentioning social-emotional learning in working with schools there. I get a sense that STEM or STEAM took a bit of a back seat to basic skills, English, and SEL during the pandemic. Is that something that you’ve seen? And, and I guess where I land is that you can make a strong case that STEM actually encourages all those things as well. But what do you think about that?   

Ben Dickow [39:21]  

Yeah, no. The first part, no, the last thing you said, is not just a strong case. It is a case like STEM learning if you’re doing it right. Its very nature crosses over and allows for social and emotional learning. These aren’t. STEM is not done in a vacuum. These are social activities. There’s a ton of teamwork. I think this is starting to get into another thing I think we might talk about: that big initiative with the 30 plus STEM partners. But well, provide some context for the listeners then. In the summer of 20, early this is May of 2020, as the pandemic is upheaving education and people are like, what are we going to do?     

I was leading this task force, and the opportunity came up to pull together a group of STEM providers, nonprofits out of school, time resources to provide enrichment online for LAUSD students during that summer of 2020. We did it, and it was great. The district invited us back to do it in the school year last year. And, and so, because we started with about a dozen, but then because we were doing a whole school year program. We needed to blow it up. So now we have about 35 different organizations involved, and we’ve been providing in-class & STEM online during this regular school day. We call CORE and then enrichment afterschool online plus webinars and special events and things like that. We’ve been doing that since May of 2020. One of the partners in that, one of the 30 groups is Hilda Bay, and they have a fantastic staff and one of the staff members and, we meet these 30 partners meet every Tuesday for an hour and a half and we’ve been doing it since summer 2020.     

One of them talked about social-emotional learning in January of this year, 2021. Cause it looked like maybe for a second, maybe there will be recovery. We’d heard that maybe kids were coming to the class coming back to class. We needed to think about what’s the next evolution was, just providing the content. We had to be responsive to the social-emotional learning needs of these kids who had been disrupted. One of the heal the bay staff was like, yeah, of course, we do, social, emotional learning. Listen, even when I’m online with the kids, I’m walking with a camera out in nature or on the beach. Even with the kids online, I’ll take a moment and just let the kids enjoy the MES onsite, the landscape, and tell, ask them to be mindful and to like, think about this and think about it on an emotional level. Things like that and have that conversation with the kids, which is just as crucial in, he gives us just as much time as any like traditional STEM thing, which is like however many tons of calper in the ocean or something like that.     

So, so yeah, so STEM is, by definition, very creative and extremely connected to social, emotional learning. I think that’s another one of those knowing that there’s a lot of STEM in L.A., right? Most people don’t think of L.A. that way, this is something that we have to better brand STEM as a social-emotional experience, because yeah, because you see it, you see that emotional connection with kids when they’re doing these things. Often if you’re doing good work with STEM, it’s not about content. It’s not about facts. It’s about the activity. It’s about talking to people. It’s about working together, all that stuff.   

Nati Rodriguez [44:02]  

Can you share about what’s next for Expand LA?   

Ben Dickow [44:07] 

Expand LA will be 501(c)(3) organizations that is the intermediary for out-of-school, time learning in greater Los Angeles. If you think of great school, time learning as museums and non-profits and afterschool programs; athletic and arts programs and the STEM summer camps, and all things that kids can access out of the classroom day that has to do with education. That’s all, that’s either out of school, time learning, also known as expanded learning, also known as informal education, whatever it is, Expand LA is going to be the organization that brings all of that together. It’s the network. It’s going to support all of those different players. It will advocate more as a field, as a unified field. Expand LA is right now working on formalizing itself, becoming this standalone nonprofit organization, and is looking for an executive director, inaugural executive director can lead it, but this has been in the works for two, well over two years, but like really roll up your sleeves and make it happen. For the past two years, I led the task force that started in November of 2019 to lay the groundwork for this organization and work with the mayor’s office and others throughout L.A. philanthropy. This all came about from some listening sessions done to expanded learning providers or out-of-school time providers. Hey, we need a group to pull us together in L.A. It’s such a diverse, it’s a diverse region, and we’re separated.   

We need to work together to bring more resources down here to Southern California, standardize some of our practices, talk to each other, and know what others are doing. So that’s Expand LA. So, the future is bright! I imagine that in early 2022, the organization will come out as its entity. There was a lot of planning that went into it. Now we’re in this time of solidifying leadership, and it’s this thing. One of the things that came out of this STEM initiative pulled together these 30 STEM groups. Now that’s become its own thing kicked in gear from Expand LA, but it’s informally called the L.A. STEM Collective. So, we’ll see if that name sticks or what happens, but that’s doing this big, out-of-school learning initiative with LAUSD.   

Nati Rodriguez [47:01] 

When I think of it, I’m out of school learning, and traditionally, it’s been like enrichment for kids whose parents can afford to drive them places have them pay for clubs or memberships. So, I assume that this work serves populations, vulnerable populations that don’t necessarily have access to this out-of-school learning.   

Ben Dickow [47:27] 

Absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. I mean, baked into the mission Expand LA is to create greater access to out-of-school learning opportunities, especially for marginalized and underrepresented students throughout the valley. No, that is key. It translates into the work going out to the STEM group. There are 30 plus STEM organizations where we all get together. We are very focused on increasing access and diversity within our field and the students who access our resources. We as a field have the research behind us to show how effective we are at educating kids at directing their path. There’s a study that came out a little over 10 years ago now, I guess, but it showed the value of informal education experiences. We play, if not the most important, maybe the most important. If you read the data some ways, it’s like the most important role in determining what kids are doing. At least in STEM, a study was done that looked at a bunch of STEM professionals, like thousands of STEM professionals throughout the country.     

Most of them pointed to an out-of-school time experience. The things that inspired them like a visit to a museum, visiting wherever they were or with a snake or something like that just kind of sets kid’s paths. We need to make sure that everybody has access to that—especially kids who are marginalized, underrepresented, and under-resourced access to those experiences. Expand LA is going to work hard at that. That’s part of the power of this collective action of getting resources that support that work and kind of break down at least the cost barriers. Maybe some of the distance barriers and kind of work on these big issues, like acting as a group as opposed to just all of us doing our own thing. So, I mean, that’s that, but like I said, in STEM or the STEM group, we’re working on the same thing. Part of our work with LAUSD is that afterschool enrichment portion, and it’s all free, and it’s open to every kid in the district, but by the early part of it.     

We notice that kids in more resourced parts of the LAUSD are taking a lot of the slots for enrichment. The STEM group is working on plans to help the district figure out how to democratize that or not democratize that, but change that even to the point of we’ve talked about partnering up with the library systems in L.A. and L.A. County. The STEM organization staff is there to help kids and families register for these enrichment classes if they’re part of Expand L.A. or if they’re part of LAUSD. So, I mean, that’s this, these large problems of access role, hopefully, be solved by big thinking from large groups of really invested providers. That’s important, but I want to. I also want to jump on another thing you said, which was about, you kind of think about these STEM organizations as enriching instruments and stuff like that.    

I hope one of my personal goals is for us not to think of it that way. Like we are fundamental to the education life of kids, period. We’re just as important as the classroom and as valuable as the classroom. We can’t always kind of paint ourselves in this box of the enrichment part, but again, we provide so much that really kind of kicks kids down their path of what they’re passionate about, what they do, and things like that. And I’m not saying that teachers in classrooms don’t, but it’s the combination of both of these things working together. One more formalized with the school district in one, more disparate, but just as important and valuable to kids’ lives that I would hope we start to get away from thinking about is just enrichment. These are fundamental things. We have a lot of freedom in what we do in the out-of-school time that classrooms don’t.    

I think there’s a real value to having a mix of those two things together.    

Nati Rodriguez [51:46] 

I couldn’t agree more. Ben, thank you. There. Anything else you want to share about your work across all these different organizations?   

Ben Dickow [51:55] 

I’m very happy to be able to talk about it. These are things happening all over L.A. from hundreds, if not thousands of really dedicated professionals, educators. This is more than just STEM, just the educators working with kids after school and afterschool programs and arts programs and things like that. Like these are professionals who know what they’re doing and how to connect with kids and connect with communities and connect with people. And, and so I, I’m really lucky to be able to be talking to you to be one of them and be able to talk to you like this, but there are hundreds of me out there that are doing great work. And, and I think, I thank you for taking notice of that and having the field take a look at what resources are around you.   

Nati Rodriguez [53:58]

You’re making me think of all the experiences I had outside the classroom, which I like lived in a library. My first STEM experiences were not in school.   

Ben Dickow [54:13]  

Yeah. It’s often the case. I mean, that’s what you were actually. This was one of the first questions you asked, like, we know how STEM was deemphasized in this past year. I mean, that was knowing that was going to happen. Just looking at how much time was allotted for the online classroom, especially last school year, and how that STEM was just like an add-on, if you had time, you could choose from doing STEM or doing a resource or a recess thing or arts or whatever. It wasn’t part of the core curriculum. That’s a big reason we, the STEM providers, came together and did have that initiative because we realized we worked with local district central at LAUSD and realized that we just focused on the fifth grade. We did every single fifth-grade class in the local district.   

The Center has about 250 classes because we didn’t want those kids to go through a school year with STEM as a maybe have instead of needing to have. And, but that was pre-pandemic too. I mean, if you look at the stats, so many teachers, especially in elementary school, don’t have the training for STEM or the interest, but usually, that is, it’s not really about interest. It’s about just like comfortability with doing STEM. It’s truly not rocket science, but having a partner like the space center or a museum is there to kind of help you through is so helpful. It translates that being just uncomfortable translates to how much time STEM is given in the classroom. Especially in those elementary grades, like it has to be a fundamental thing or accessing the library or museums or anything like that has to be so easy that it can be a fundamental experience, even if it’s not happening in the classroom.   

Because yeah, I mean, your story is I’ve heard that with a lot of people, like the first time that, and I think about it, my first real, the thing that kind of got me into was Star Wars, seeing sours for the first time at this pop culture event. It happened in space, and I was like, I love space. That looks great. Watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos like there, too, those are two things that are not classroom-related at all. Those are out-of-school, time STEM experiences, they’re media-based, but still, that’s what kind of got me here. I think most people will say that. So, if it’s not happening in the classroom, there must be other places where people can access this kind of stuff.   

Nati Rodriguez [56:53]

Thank you. Thank you so much, Ben. I appreciate learning more about you and your work. This is so vital to our LA ecosystem and especially at this time.  

Ben Dickow [57:08]  

Indeed. Thank you. Thank you so much for supporting it, and thank you so much for being interested, and I’m happy to join any other time. We’ve had been an absolute pleasure to talk today.     

Nati Rodriguez [57:20]  

Thank you. Where can people learn more about the Columbia Space Center?   

Ben Dickow [57:25]  

You can look at our website at or through social media at Columbia Space, City of Stem. You can also access if you want to learn about our programs. If you’re interested in the work that we’re doing, like I said, loosely called the LA Stem Collective. If anybody is interested and I’m happy to follow up,   

Nati Rodriguez [57:52]  

We will do that. Thank you. Be27LAS