UCLA alumna Jennifer Lara shares her online-teaching experience

by To Duong

Earlier this school year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, a local UCLA alumna started her eighth year of teaching high school science. With her witty, joyful personality and passion for chemistry and engineering, Ms. Jennifer Lara creates a lively and fostering learning environment in her classroom (now online), which she calls “The Lara Lab.”

Carrying with her the UCLA mission of research-based learning, Lara designs The Lara Lab to be lab-oriented, in which her students can explore the exciting and fun sides of science. Through numerous interactive and collaborative lab activities, Lara’s students get hands-on experience applying theoretical textbook concepts by designing and carrying out their own experiments.

Before the pandemic interrupted the normalcy of in-person classes, Lara filled her days with rowdy classrooms and students who collaborated on labs and laughed at her jokes or witty remarks.

“Now I’m just looking at squares of their faces, foreheads, ceilings or a black box with their name. Some don’t want to unmute due to noise in the background or shyness. I see some of them smile or laugh in their Zoom boxes, but they’re muted, so it’s really like I’m listening to the crickets chirping,” Lara replied when asked about how the pandemic had affected her teaching.

Throughout her years at UCLA, Lara became an integral part of Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity (CEED) and its partnering organizations Society of Latino Engineers and Scientists (SOLES) and the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She worked with their K-12 summer outreach programs, through which she found her passion for teaching. She was also a student worker in their office during the school year. As a freshman, she was the secretary for NSBE as well as the vice president, regional leader, social co-chair, and activities coordinator for SOLES, which serves the inner-city schools by planning conferences for students and creating opportunities of mentorship.

Her passion for teaching stemmed from her involvement in SOLES. During her time there, she worked with her peers to plan workshops and demonstrations for students. From that experience, she knew that she “wanted to do something that […] could bring a smile and scientific curiosity to others.”

Since graduating, Lara misses the “interactions with people from different backgrounds and the long nights with her fellow engineering major friends” as well as “the camaraderie, interactions and dedication of her peers in SOLES, NSBE and AISES” from her time as a student at UCLA.

Ms Lara in her Game of Thrones costume lights her hand on fire in a demonstration of a chemical reaction

Eight years into her teaching career, Lara stands by her decision of pursuing teaching 10 years ago despite the “stress of preparing engaging lessons” magnified by the transition to online learning. Her time at school and her involvement and dedication to countless organizations provided her with many learning opportunities, from which she was able to apply to her teaching not only in the classroom but also to Femineers as the club advisor. Femineers is an engineering program created and funded by Cal Poly Pomona to promote and inspire females to pursue STEM careers. They meet in Lara’s class every week to complete different year-long projects and learn various engineering skills, such as Python coding, which they get to showcase at the annual Femineers conference at Cal Poly Pomona.

Beyond her classroom and club involvement, Lara continues to create lasting connections with other like-minded individuals through her Instagram @thelaralab where she posts chemistry-related content.

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