Patricia Fonseca once walked the halls of San Jacinto College as a student, but these days she finds herself bringing fourth-graders to her alma mater for the one activity proven to increase student engagement and college graduation rates – outreach through service learning.

"What I remember here is the hands-on approach to science; that's what I really enjoyed the most about my experience at San Jacinto College," said Fonseca, a teacher at Genoa Elementary School who credits former professors Dr. Ann Cartwright, Patricia Steinke, Sherry Eska, now retired, for inspiring her to become an educator. Fonseca holds a bachelor's degree in education, specializing in math education, from the University of Houston-Clear Lake and is set to graduate soon with her master's degree in curriculum instruction at Western Governor's University.

"I know that if my students can communicate what is happening in these STEM activities then they are making sense of what is being taught in the classroom," said Fonseca. STEM is the common acronym for the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

A recent lecture by Dr. David Laude at the Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy revealed that service-learning opportunities in STEM play a key role in a formula of initiatives that serve to increase STEM student graduation rates and improve retention at his university. Laude is the senior vice provost and a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

STEM service learning can be delivered in a number of ways, from having college science majors serve as guides and mentors to K-12 students, to having a biology class volunteer at a local prairie habitat. The method is similar to any type of community service effort but more focused in purpose, narrow in scope, and impacts not just student engagement in the classroom, but overall retention and graduation rates in colleges as well as universities.

"There's a lot of research out there about STEM service learning and how this reinforces what is learned in the classroom, improves cognitive skills, encourages leadership, and improves self esteem," said Dr. Ann Cartwright, San Jacinto College chemistry professor and STEM coordinator. "I sometimes have my students write about their experiences working with the K-12 students, and what I find is that our students become more involved in class - they come up with fantastic ideas on what to change or add for future STEM service learning events."

When elementary students visit San Jacinto College, they're exposed to a variety of STEM outreach activities like witnessing the chemistry behind making slime, shrinky dinks, finding fossils, identifying bones and plants, a hair-raising plasma ball activity, and an electromagnetic induction activity. This Fall, San Jacinto College hosted two STEM Expos free of charge for children who attend Communities in Schools-Afterschool Centers of Education. These events, funded by an American Chemical Society grant, allowed for the delivery of FTC robotics and humanoids demonstrations, under-water robotics activities, and science experiments for more than 1,000 children from Pasadena and Galena Park.

Cartwright's first group of STEM outreach students from Genoa Elementary, who were a part of the 2008 San Jacinto College STEM service-learning event, will soon be approaching their senior year of high school. She hopes to find out how many of them may have chosen STEM-related career paths.

"We have found that STEM service learning activities act as a way to courage our college students to persist, and I'm eager to know the effects these outreach activities have on K-12 students who came here, worked alongside our students, and if these activities indeed helped to inspire them toward a college education and STEM careers," said Cartwright.

The San Jacinto College STEM Council supports all STEM-related service-learning and outreach opportunities available through the College. For more information, visit

About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of approximately 30,000 credit students. The College offers 186 degrees and certificates, with 46 technical programs and a university transfer division. Students benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success, and job training programs that are renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.

For more information about San Jacinto College, please call 281-998-6150, visit, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.