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A Synchronous Solution

By Jennifer Massoni Pardini

RAFT provides a vital form of connection for educators and students during distance learning.

When Jason Morrella became CEO of RAFT, the Resource Area for Teaching, in the fall of 2019, he envisioned a new year of growth and innovation for the nonprofit organization. During his tenure leading the Revolution Robotics Foundation and, previously, the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation, he had worked to expand STEAM programming and ensure inclusive participation. Morrella’s initial vision would soon shift as this “surreal” year impacted education, health care, additional hardship for low-income families, and even the air we breathe. Thankfully, not at the expense of evolution for the San Jose–based organization primed to deliver — literally and figuratively — hands-on learning tools to educators and students in grades pre-K-12.

Since shelter-in-place began in March, RAFT has provided 70,000 — and counting — hands-on STEAM Project Kits and 120 free downloadable activity sheets on its revamped website (raft.net), which now reflects a store setting with over 100 items typically sold at the warehouse. “It’s always been a teacher center,” Morrella says. “A big change we’ve made is acknowledging teachers need more support than ever now. Everyone is part of the education process — parents, grandparents, teachers. We’ve opened membership to anyone now so that families can also get access to affordable educational resources.”

Morrella was also born and raised in San Jose. He taught English and social studies at Broadway High School and knows well the serious challenges facing students at an at-risk school. He also saw the transformative power of hands-on learning. “Our school got a grant from NASA to start a robotics problem,” he recalls of working with seven students who were struggling academically and chronically absent. “By the end of the year, they were coming to school every day, and their grades went up to As and Bs,” he says. “When students just take a quiz or test in regular classes, it’s right or it’s wrong. When they get a 6 out of 10, it’s a D. With hands-on learning you get to fix the four parts that aren’t working. It’s just so powerful when kids can see themselves come up with a solution.”

In Morrella’s view, the biggest roadblocks to implementing programs that promote STEAM fields — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — have been affordability and accessibility, two issues that RAFT is tailor made to address, both by providing students across six Bay Area counties with learning opportunities they may not otherwise receive and by offering educators affordable teaching materials. This effort to recycle materials from Bay Area companies for classroom use was the impetus for RAFT’s founding by Mary Simon in 1994, long before such sustainable priorities were mainstream. From those innovative beginnings, RAFT has grown with the support of some 200 community and corporate partners (like Intuit, Cisco and PayPal) and 6,000 volunteers to serve 8,000 educators and to impact over 150,000 students. Materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill go into creating learning kits that cost $2 to $5, instead of $15 to $20.

The outfitted RAFT Mobile will deliver hands-on STEAM learning opportunities
to students and provide extended professional development offerings for educators.

“For me and our staff, in a time that has felt helpless for so many people, the silver lining has been that we were able to stay open with limited operations and actually be a part of the solution,” Morrella says. “In April, May and June, teachers had no ability to get any real resources into the hands of the kids. We were able to work with the Santa Clara County Office of Education and Synopsys Outreach Foundation to get kits distributed at meal distribution sites at Title I schools.” Through additional corporate grants, RAFT was also able to offer summer school programming, run by RAFT staff, at much-reduced or no cost to underserved students, who would receive the learning kits in the mail ahead of online camp. The program also enabled RAFT to better see and address what students and teachers go through while learning and teaching online. A recent virtual fundraiser will help enable RAFT to continue such programming while it waits to get back to full-capacity operations.

And, in partnership with the Sharks Foundation and Western Digital, the RAFT Maker Mobile, complete with power tools, mini-3D printers and laser cutters, is ready to bring STEAM hands-on activities safely to schools when they do eventually shift to a hybrid model. “The issue is still going to be physical distancing, and it’s still going to be hard to teach,” Morrella says. “We can help them spread out and do hands-on activities outside, at stations, in little pods. It’s really enjoyable for the kids — and safer.”

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