Two Los Lunas Facebook Data Center employees recently presented staff members from Los Lunas Schools with a $100,000 STEM grant. Pictured, second from left, is Mary McGowan, LLS director of compliance; and third from left, Susan Chavez, assistant superintendent of special services.
Photo courtesy of Los Lunas Schools

Students and teachers across Valencia County will be able to immerse themselves in science, technology, engineering and math, thanks to hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Facebook.

Facebook has awarded Belen Consolidated Schools and Los Lunas Schools each a $100,000 grant to help the districts create STEM Learning Hubs and Lending Libraries.

The STEM centers will allow teachers and students to access training tools, as well as educational equipment such as robotics kits, computers and various science tools for small group activities.

Belen teachers will be able to borrow equipment such as microscopes, virtual reality headsets, robotics kits and makerspace tools, then use them to create virtual or in-class lessons.

The STEM Hub and Lending Library will also include technology to use on-site. Supplies purchased for the STEM Lending Libraries will be accessible to all teachers K-12.

“Facebook has been an integral partner in supporting STEM education in Belen Schools. Our goal is to ensure our teachers and students have access to supplies necessary for a stellar science education,” said Val Gauthier, BCS director of federal programs. “This must, in our view, expand to STEM education to fully encompass the goals of the STEM Ready! Science Standards and create the best opportunities for our students’ futures.

“This grant will provide vital support for the initiative to create the STEM learning hub, which will be a place for learning and exploration. We appreciate Facebook as our community partner in educating students in STEM and providing the grant opportunities to make this happen.”

Chelsea Servantes, the district science instructional facilitator, said the grant would help the district establish a central location for STEM learning and collaboration.

“This will let us take our current STEM library and turn it into a learning hub. It will be a place for student engagement, teacher opportunities to collaborate and create, a place to be inspired by STEM exploration,” Servantes said. “This will be inclusive of students and teachers.”

Much like reading, if students aren’t “hooked” on STEM by third grade, they feel like outsiders, she said.

“That is not what we want for our students. We want them to have STEM so they can carry it into whatever workplace they go to,” Servantes said.

Previous uses of the BCS STEM library have included elementary and secondary students and teachers exploring and looking at microscopic life.

“The materials being added to the lending library are in life sciences, physical, earth and space sciences and engineering. This is how you bring traditional items into a really robust, student led, student driven learning situation,” she said.

Servantes said the district is also going to add robotics equipment to the lending library as well as virtual learning technology.

“We encourage ideas from the community as we build the library,” she said.

Belen Board of Education President Lisa Chavez said it was obvious Servantes has a passion for science and STEM and hoped to see that same passion in the students.

Board member Aubrey Tucker quoted Benjamin Franklin, saying “‘an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.’ I am so glad to see we have an investment in our children.”

Los Lunas Schools interim superintendent Walter Gibson said the “money will be well spent” when addressing Facebook community development regional manager Holli Davies, who spoke on behalf of the social media conglomerate during last week’s board of education meeting.

The money will be put towards the creation of a future lending library for Los Lunas students, said Susan Chavez, LLS assistant superintendent of special services.

“Students will be exposed to as many devices as possible so they know how broad the STEM field has become in today’s world,” Chavez said. “As a lifelong resident of Los Lunas, I never dreamed we would have a company such as Facebook in our community.

“We want our students to know they can be the next app developer that changes people’s lives for the better and they can do this in the community they grew up in.”

While the library has yet to be created, Los Lunas Schools has plans to put its grant money to use. Earlier this year, the district was awarded a community action grant — totaling $23,600 — from Facebook to begin its STEM library. Chavez said this latest grant will expand on the creation of it.

A few years ago, Los Lunas Schools developed a Digital Learning Plan that focused on getting Apple devices into the hands of students down the road, but the pandemic changed the timeline due to the necessity of all students having a device for remote learning, Chavez said.

“Many of our students are very familiar with the Apple devices and we believe a STEM lending library would be the next step to preparing our students for STEM careers. Faculty and staff will be able to borrow items such as robots, Botballs, and other coding-specific items,” she added. “We will also use the lending library as a place teachers can visit to learn how to use the devices that they will borrow and utilize in their classrooms.”

While Facebook had given out grants to put towards STEM learning, it also handed out nearly $150,000 in COVID-19 relief funds for Los Lunas Schools. Chavez said that money was used to secure a license for Zoom, additional iPads and for mobile hotspots for students in the district.

Gibson said the hotspots for WiFi connectivity are located at community centers, fire stations and on buses that park in areas of the district where connectivity is most needed.

“We’ve put hotspots on 20 buses, and we move those buses into various places in the community every day,” Gibson said.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.