Chandra Oaks-Garcia is a middle school teacher for the City of Hampton in Virginia and she founded and runs a STEM outreach program called Time Out 4U. This program mainly hosts workshops and symposium throughout the year to help give kids exposure to STEM subjects and keep them engaged until it is time for college, in the hopes they’ll also pursue a STEM degree.

Oaks-Garcia, herself, is currently a college student, studying STEM education at Old Dominion University. When she graduated with her first degree, a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Drafting and Design Technology from Alabama Agriculture and Mechanical University, in the 80s, she was the only African American in her field that graduated at the particular time with that STEM degree. Not even realizing the importance at the time, she is proud and inspired to reflect back on that accomplishment. Oaks-Garcia mentioned that she picked up her yearbook to look through at all the photos, and said, “Wow, I’m the only one.” This realization helped spur her on even more to make sure to help get, as she says, “little brown girls that look like me into these fields!”

There is a large gap and a big disadvantage for minority students in the STEM fields that lead to extensive efforts to help take away disadvantages and decrease the gap to make sure that all students have the ability to gain access to study in STEM fields. One such program is Oaks-Garcia’s own Time Out 4U, along with the many programs that Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity runs through the summer, as well as year round! It was suggested to Oaks-Garcia to fill out the application to become an Imagination instructor, knowing she’d be perfect for the role.

Imagination is a summer camp at Virginia Tech for rising 7th and 8th graders to introduce them to the world of science, technology, and engineering. Students get to work on completing an engineering project as well as participate in hands on sessions that allow them to explore the many different aspects of engineering. This year, due to COVID, it was decided that the camp would be online, not something that swayed Oaks-Garcia, a teacher that has really gotten the hang of online teaching and learning anyway. She also believes it is great to have virtual learning experiences as more degrees become available online.

Oaks-Garcia mentioned that her part in Imagination this year was being a facilitator of her group. Paired with another teacher, it was clear that Oaks-Garcia knew the engineering design process front and back, and that is where she would excel as an instructor for Imagination. The other teacher, Linda, and herself collaborated extremely well, even having zoom meetings in the evenings to discuss and plan for the programs.

A favorite memory of the week for Oaks-Garcia was when there was an issue with the code – it wasn’t coming together for the students. The students looked to Oaks-Garcia and Linda for assistance, and it turns out they weren’t sure of the answer either (there was an error in the original code), but knew it was a great learning moment for all to then turn to the engineering design process. If it doesn’t work the first time, time to start over and try again. Oaks-Garcia said, “and I told the kids, this is a brainstorming process, this is where collaboration, this is real world now, let’s try and figure this out together.”

Oaks-Garcia would love to continue to work with Imagination in the future and have a continued collaboration with Virginia Tech to assist in a pipeline of Hampton Roads area students into STEM degree fields, “I would love to have my community involved in something like that, because it’s such a rich opportunity and what you’re doing there is phenomenal.”