How the Westside tech boom has changed the local education landscape

By Wendy Zacuto

St. Bernard hosts a STEM Summit on Saturday

L.A.-area neighborhoods west of the 405 are awash with digital media entrepreneurship, aeronautics R&D, advanced medical practitioners, new contemporary architecture, omnipresent public art and sustained community interest in restoring natural environments such as coastal dunes and the Ballona Wetlands.

The jobs of the future are already here, and they call upon local parents to cultivate 21st-century scholars with strong backgrounds in science and technology. Accordingly, many local schools have adopted STEM and STEAM curricula.

STEM is a science- and math-based approach that places technology and engineering in a central role through project-based learning and problem-solving. Some schools add the arts to the mixture, turning STEM to STEAM.

STEAM schools link Science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), Technology (creating tools, understanding computers), Engineering (everything from building blocks to solving structural design problems), Art (much of it rooted in geometry and mathematics), and Mathematics (the language we use to describe scientific data).

That’s the stuff powering the digital media, virtual reality and robotics innovations that are expanding the realm of our daily experiences. That’s what’s also going to solve future problems like cleaning up polluted oceans or protecting drinking water during climate change-driven drought.

In addition to providing students with the confidence and skills needed to solve complex problems, STEM and STEAM curricula fosters collaborative learning, resilience and the mindset that intelligence is the result of the persistent and intentional development of knowledge.

On Saturday (Feb. 23), the annual STEM Summit at St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey offers middle and high school students the opportunity to work on the Balsa Bridge Building project. High schoolers teach younger students engineering principles of bridge design after receiving training by school employees, engineers and employees of The Aerospace Corporation and other Silicon Beach companies.

The Orville Wright Middle School STEAM Magnet in Westchester blends project-based learning, “electives in depth” and core classes targeting state content standards. Each semester, students work in teams to create an interdisciplinary project, such as a science unit about viruses that also includes a math focus
on geometric shapes and scale drawings
of cells, an historical survey of viral outbreaks, and English studies about innovations in prevention.

Dr. Ellis Crasnow, founder and director of STEM Academy and STEM Education at The Help Group, believes that students with academic challenges benefit from problem-solving curriculum.

“At STEM Academy, we focus on each student’s strengths as a base and create strategies to work around their challenging areas to ensure success,” says Crasnow.

Playa Vista Elementary School and its pipeline middle school, the Katherine Johnson STEM Academy, develop special projects led by consultants like Loyola Marymount University Center for Math and Science Teaching Curriculum Developer Kelly Keeler. The Erosion Design Project for fourth-grade students and teachers at PVES is an example of Keeler’s work. Students created science models of the Westchester bluffs and surrounding areas in their examination
of the possible problems caused by building housing within an environment subject to erosion. Hands-on STEM lessons like this one demonstrate the importance of expecting failure as a part of learning as students create, test, and recreate solutions.

Although the STEM and STEAM labels are increasingly common, schools without them may offer similar opportunities. Open Magnet Charter School’s progressive curriculum shares similarities with the scientific problem-solving and technology included in STEM as a result of its mission-driven curriculum approach.

Many local schools without STEM identification benefit from STEM curriculum development provided by a Loyola Marymount University partnership. Parents researching local schools should not only “read the label,” but look for programs that integrate various courses of study through hands-on projects that deal with real-world problems.

Wendy Zacuto is former teacher and principal who is now an education consultant in Playa del Rey. Contact her at