Stories From the Field (CA): Planting the Seed: California’s Student Leadership Institutes

FOCUS: Early Outreach = Planting the Seed: California’s Student Leadership Institutes

TARGET AUDIENCE: Migrant Education Program (MEP) State Directors, Secondary Advocates, College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) Directors and Staff

The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at Sacramento State developed and hosted a two-week residential Migrant Student Leadership Institute (MSLI) on its campus. The program is funded by a competitive grant from the California Department of Education. MSLI is an integrated program of study focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects while promoting college preparedness for migrant secondary students. Drawing on California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s STEM initiative, the Institute provides an opportunity for students in 10th and 11th grades to explore STEM-related fields and careers through rigorous study and hands-on application of subject matter designed to bridge in-school and out-of-school learning opportunities. Living in the dorms and participating in workshops and activities geared toward college preparedness introduces these secondary students to campus life and helps them envision the possibilities beyond high school graduation. Students learn how to apply for and finance college education, while also developing and honing study and time management skills. They also devote time to developing their own academic and career plans. A third component of the MSLI is service learning and leadership in order to help migrant students strengthen self-confidence and build capacity for self-advocacy. And recreation promotes team building skills and helps students de-stress. Students earning a grade of C or better in academic coursework during the Institute earn three-units of college credit.


✔ Self-awareness is a key element in academic and personal growth. Instructors provide opportunities for students to connect their life experiences to course content through real world application. Instructors also come away with new insights about integrative teaching techniques and motivating underrepresented students to pursue STEM careers.

As one instructor reflected,

“I found myself learning from the perspectives offered by my students during the intense discussions during class, and the questions that they asked inside and outside the classroom about the topics discussed in class. For instance, I learned that for many of the students, I was the first engineering professional that they had ever had contact with. I learned that many of these students have great intellectual potential to become engineers or/and scientists, but they have not been properly educated or encouraged to develop their potential as prospective students in the field of engineering, either in their respective schools or families.”

✔ Instruction, field trips, and guest speakers also provide opportunities to build community, trust and encouragement using problem-posing as a strategy to provoke students to think about personal choice as well as the choices of others. In English/Language Arts, for example, the first essay asks students to describe the world they came from and how that world has affected/influenced who they are today.

As the instructor noted:
“After reading this first assignment, I wanted the students to express their stories with one another through community circles and project presentations….Through open sharing, students were able to identify with one another and were able to console and encourage one another through endeavors….By providing students a space of trust and a place to vent, I also provided them the insight that people can be trusted and that there are people in the world who are truly trying to help them….”

What students had to say about the experience:
“This English class has also inspired me to not think we can’t do anything just because we are brown or undocumented…it has inspired me to work with other people and has actually picked up my self-esteem,” one student wrote.

“[I]t gave us the opportunity to express ourselves and not be afraid to cry out our pain,” noted another.

✔ Panel discussions with community leaders at the State Capitol, helped migrant students realize the importance of getting involved in policy making and community service as policy and community investment have a direct impact on their daily lives. Through conversations with civic leaders, students were able to explore the meaning of civic engagement and its connection to their schools and families. These interactions also helped highlight the importance of being critical thinkers and making decisions accordingly. As one student reflected, “[Y]ou can change things around your school and help your community.”

STUDENT IMPACTS: Pre- and post-test assessments in each of the core STEM subjects (comprehensive science, mathematics for college, and engineering and technology) measured student growth on evaluating mathematical and scientific problem solving.

The science assessment asked students to read an experimental design and answer five multiple-choice questions about the experiment and the application of the scientific method. These initial numbers revealed that 73 students (97%) had some knowledge of the scientific method and experimental design but there was a need to review, clarify and/or reteach the concepts. Post-test assessment results showed an increase in student understanding with a shift of the bell curve to the right: 28% of students got four questions right; 29.3% got five questions right; not one student got all questions wrong, and fewer students got only one and two questions correct. See table and graph of results.

Student self-assessments (also pre- and post-) measured student attitudes about course content and interest in pursuing STEM-related careers. The pre-/post-test results on students’ interest in engineering dramatically increased after taking the class:
female students interested in pursuing careers in engineering increased from 11% to 39% while male students increased from 21% to 40%;

interest in biomedical/bioengineering as a specialized field increased from 1.3% of students interested to 28%

In addition, students worked on an interdisciplinary project to design and build a carrier, using biodegradable materials, which would send a message about conserving natural resources; this device was attached to five 16-inch-diameter helium balloons and released outdoors. Students calculated the theoretical mass one balloon could lift in their mathematics course; students critically analyzed experimental designs, and selected appropriate materials for their carrier (science and engineering); they wrote up their displays outlining the scientific method and key components of the engineering process (English/Language Arts and engineering).


✔ Civic engagement is an added learning objective that is crucial for building migrant student capacity.

Students benefit from understanding how local, state, and national government works, and how their participation can be empowering—working to affect change in their own communities. In that way, these learning opportunities can increase self-confidence, strengthen communication skills, and teach students how to assert their own interests and needs effectively. Being in California’s capital city was beneficial as professionals from the State Capitol could serve as guest speakers and did reinforce the importance of civic participation in their talks.

✔ Focusing STEM instruction on the application of content (e.g., problem solving, analyzing information, and communication) rather than specific skill building works well in a short time frame, with students at different levels of knowledge.

Highly qualified instructors can work with the curriculum to provide rich learning experiences for all the students when there is flexibility to explore mathematical and scientific processes and practices. Working interdependently, the instructors can integrate content being taught in the other classes to enhance application of concepts in real-world situations.


Attachment: Course Curriculum Syllabus for English at the MSLI


Dr. Viridiana Diaz
College Assistance Migrant Program
Sacramento State
River Front Center 1
6000 J Street
Sacramento, CA 95819-6108
Telephone: (916) 278-7241

The source for much of this field story narrative and images come from the Final Report for the 2013 Migrant Student Leadership Institute, Sacramento State College Assistance Migrant Program.