OC STEM initiative awards honor CUSD elementary educators

By Cathi Douglas

Two Capistrano Unified elementary school educators say their recent STEM award endorses the importance of scientific innovation and discovery in children.

The Orange County STEM Initiative has awarded district Elementary Science Curriculum Specialist Elisa Slee and YMCA Site Director Upni Kaur with this year’s Outstanding STEM Educator awards.

The honor recognizes their efforts in helping students learn new ways to develop scientific knowledge and respond in new ways to serious global challenges.

“I am excited to be recognized for all the STEM programs we offer,” says Kaur, who works at Wood Canyon Elementary and was nominated by her YMCA supervisor Pam Kowalski. “I enjoy watching kids get excited about science and seeing their curiosity and growth. Being a leader to the kids and providing opportunities is really joyful to me.”

The awards come with a $500 cash award for each educator as well as funding to the district. Slee says she used her award money to take her family to dinner as a thank you for their support.

“This is a recognition of how hard I work across organizations,” she notes. “I was so surprised to receive it because my head is down and I’m working so hard, and you don’t think anyone notices.”

“Being honored for my leadership means a lot to the community partners and district,” Slee said.

Kaur notes that STEM enrichment especially benefits her students at Wood Canyon because a number of families served by the school are low-income.

“They don’t get opportunities for STEM study at all except for what is provided by our programs,” Kaur said.

To Slee, the award underscores the importance of scientific literacy, research, analytic thinking skills, and expanded STEM opportunities for children. STEM studies increase students’ developmental skills, enabling them to think innovatively and creatively.

“I really believe in the problem-solving skills of STEM studies, no matter what students go on to study in college,” Slee says. “Children are natural innovators and we want to keep that curiosity alive.”

“We need to be more than teachers,” Slee adds. “We must work with community organizations and government agencies and talk to experts across the country to get kids motivated in these studies.”

She says her award is made possible in part thanks to the participation of the district’s STEM partners, including the Discovery Cube, the Crystal Cove Conservancy, the Child Creativity Lab, and Inside the Outdoors.

“I’m grateful to the STEM ecosystem and the sponsorship of the Samueli Foundation, which provides me with interactions with other educators and inspires me. I deeply admire all these people.”

Learning more about STEM alongside her students, Kaur says, has helped her grow in her position.

“I’ve found in them my inner inspiration,” she said.

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