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Meet Karen Cunningham – Mira Costa’s Longtime Science Lab Assistant

by Ella Mahan, Student Editor

Without the help of science laboratory assistant Karen Cunningham, the Mira Costa Science Department would not have the resources to efficiently run a full-length experiment in the time allotted per class period. Throughout her 14 years working as a lab assistant for Mira Costa, Cunningham has personally played a substantial role in increasing the number of labs students are able to perform. Because teachers had difficulty finding the time to prepare lab areas for students after school hours, not many labs were being executed. This all changed when two science teachers, Tom Schuster and Harold Coller, advocated for additional help in the department, which ultimately led to the beginning of Cunningham’s longtime experience as a laboratory assistant.

As hands-on and project-based learning has grown in significance in the education world, so has Cunningham’s role. She manages the expansive supply order lists for experiments, sets up labs prior to the beginning of the class period so students can effectively use their time in the lab, and acts as an “extra set of eyes” to ensure student safety and cooperation. She also manages the science budget, including lab donations. Cunningham’s contributions to the science department are very beneficial to student learning, but she has also enjoyed the benefits of being in a laboratory with students. Working with students directly and enriching student learning through hands-on experiments is one of Cunningham’s favorite features of her job. “I really enjoy being around all of the amazing Costa students,” Cunningham says. “Their energy and enthusiasm about science make it a very rewarding experience.”

Prior to becoming an assistant for the many laboratories in Mira Costa’s Math and Science Building, Cunningham spent 31 years performing numerous jobs for the district, some being classroom assistant, choral music assistant, and copy room assistant. When the position of science lab assistant became available, Cunningham immediately jumped on the opportunity. “I was so excited,” Cunningham said. “It was an 8-hour-a-day, five-days-a-week role at Mira Costa funded by the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation.” Cunningham shared that shifting to her new role of a laboratory assistant took lots of adjusting, as she has a B.A. Degree in liberal arts, not science. But Cunningham had always had an interest in science, and the new-found focus became natural to her even though she had never taken a chemistry course before! Now, the chemistry lab is where she spends the majority of her time.

According to Honors and AP Chemistry instructor, Teresa Nielsen, “Karen Cunningham is the keystone to the Mira Costa Science Department,” and an essential part of its success. Even throughout the pandemic and distance learning, Cunningham worked behind the scenes to provide teachers with the necessary materials for at-home demonstrations or lab-based virtual demonstrations, as well as ensured the science classrooms were ready for experimentation once things shifted to in-person learning.

As students return to the classroom this year, Cunningham’s role continues to be critical. The joy of conducting an experiment in person with peers has never been so fulfilling – and there are plenty of experiments to help manage!

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