By Katy Murphy

kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com

This summer, instead of staying home and watching TV, 50 children from one Oakland neighborhood are making scaled-down models of windmills and wheelchair-accessible ramps.

A few miles away, at another middle school, students built a model roller coaster to study Newton's laws of motion. A lesson about energy and the environment meant making solar ovens from pizza boxes, resulting in a tasty -- and very messy -- result: melted s'mores.

Drastic budget pressures have led many California school districts to cut back their free summer school offerings, leaving children from lower-income families to while away their 10-week break with little to do. Still, some school leaders have found creative ways to keep academic enrichment programs running, often with the help of local foundations, tech companies and youth development organizations. They see the 10-week break as an opportunity to prevent what's known as "the summer slide," learning loss which disproportionately affects poor children and to use fun, active lessons to captivate students' interest -- particularly in math and science.

What a child does one summer could affect the rest of his academic career, said Muhammed Chaudhry, CEO of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which teams up with funders to offer summer programming at schools throughout Santa Clara County.

"We know that with kids who do camps and have all of these experiences and those who don't, it's crystal clear that they're worlds apart," Chaudhry said.

In Oakland, funding from the Bechtel and Walmart foundations has allowed the district to add an afternoon science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) component at five elementary and 12 middle schools, offering free, full-day programs there. At all but three of those schools, the courses are taught by after-school program employees rather than classroom teachers.

In the Contra Costa County district of Mt. Diablo, 300 children are learning about energy this summer, also from after-school program employees. Soon, they will be conducting an energy audit at their respective elementary schools. The program involves the Mt. Diablo school district, the city of Concord and the Bay Area Community Resources nonprofit. Techbridge, an organization that promotes interest in science, technology and engineering, provides curriculum and training.

In the South Bay last week, hundreds of the East Side Union High School District's incoming ninth-graders collected water samples at a nearby creek and prepared slides to analyze the bacteria they found. The course -- designed and taught by local teachers and funded by a three-year grant administered by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation -- is four to five hours a day for four weeks. For many students, it's their first experience working in a real science laboratory, said Connie Skipitares, from the foundation.

The organization's more established program, which prepares middle school students to take algebra 1 in eighth grade, has expanded this summer to include 1,800 students at 18 Santa Clara County schools.

At a new engineering program at Oakland's Madison Middle School, 10- and 11-year-old students are learning about scale. On Tuesday, they played with different units of length. They measured desks, doors and the area of their classroom floor using juice boxes, umbrellas and other unconventional items -- and then comparing their results.

As they moved to their stations and set to work, their teacher, Ryan Patrick O'Neill, raised his voice over the room's busy din: "And don't forget about your fractional equivalents!"

Nestor Liborio and Melanie Renteria, both 10, carefully measured the length of the floor with an umbrella. After reaching the other side, both students said the program's activities allow them to use their imaginations. They said they could see themselves as engineers or engineering teachers one day.

That's also a goal of a new program in place at five Oakland elementary schools. Each lesson ends with a career connection.

At Global Family Elementary, in East Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, third-graders used flashlights to learn about electrical circuits. In the darkened room, with instructions to close the circuits, children waved their lights at the ceiling, and occasionally in each other's faces.

Across the hall, older students assuming the roles of heat and greenhouse gases moved about the room, dancing or bumping into one another, to demonstrate the greenhouse gas effect.

Luis Rosas grew up a few blocks from Global Family, the predominately Latino school where he now works as coordinator of the summer STEM program. At the beginning of the summer, he said, each child was asked to imagine and draw a scientist: Mostly, men with glasses. Rosas said he expects when they repeat the exercise later this month, there will be more women on the wall. And, maybe, a darker tint in some of the scientists' complexions.

"It opens up their eyes, like 'Maybe I could be a chemist one day,'" he said.

Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog atIBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.