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Wish Book 2018: Nonprofit finds tomorrow’s scientists in low-income schools

Problem: Curiosity is broadly distributed. Opportunity is not.

Solution: Bay Area volunteers are bringing science experiments into the low-income classrooms, thrilling youngsters with hands-on research.

Proving the law of cause and effect, the nonprofit Science is Elementary watches students’ curiosity soar when projects are fun. Conceived by Stanford-educated PhD chemist Tzipor Ulman, the organization has introduced 10,000 Bay Area children to simple but elegant concepts in physics, chemistry and engineering — using speedy toy cars to teach about force, inflated balloons to study mass, mirrors to show how light travels and melting ice to reveal some of the ever-changing properties of matter.

For $100 per student, Science Is Elementary offers an entire year’s worth of materials and classroom expertise to elementary schools, creating a culture of inquiry that could nurture our next Newton, Einstein or Hawking. A $250 donation funds a classroom’s “How tall can you build it?” engineering project; $300 funds a “physics of paper airplanes” project.  An entire classroom can be sponsored for a year for $2,500.

Founded 10 years ago in two schools in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, its 200 volunteer scientists and engineers now work in Oakland, Milpitas, East Menlo Park, Santa Clara, Redwood City, and East Palo Alto schools. It also works with teachers, mentoring them in science instruction.

But with greater support, it could reach many more.

Its philosophy: Science is awesome. Science is for everyone. And science is everywhere.

“It is play, but it’s ‘learning play,’ ” said volunteer Steve Williams, a retired physicist with the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, operated by Stanford.

“Some are just amazingly curious. It is lovely to see that,” said Williams, guiding energetic kindergartners at Menlo Park’s Belle Haven Elementary School in an exercise with toy cars to show properties of force, motion and gravity. “Others…they don’t pay that much attention, but at least we’re talking to them, and giving them the opportunity.”

In the Bay Area’s lower-income schools, economic inequality still constrains poorer children’s science horizons.

California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards in 2013, adopted a new science framework in 2016 and this year began field testing the new California Science Test. Yet implementation of the new science standards is uneven and lags in many districts, schools and grades, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The institute reported that only 60 percent of districts surveyed viewed science as a priority and an overwhelming number of districts say teachers are not well-prepared to teach to the current state standards.

To close the achievement gap, schools are focusing attention on reading and math skills. But that’s come at a cost: Subjects like science don’t get the attention they deserve. And when when elementary school science is taught, it tends to focus on biology, enlisting lovable props like classroom goldfish, hamsters or lima bean plants.

Physical sciences? Those subjects are more challenging to teach, said staffer Sue Lopez, who previously worked in the semiconductor industry.

“It’s a gap in elementary schools,” said Lopez, whose class of second graders played with mirrors to learn about the path of light. “By doing hands-on experiments, they’re exposed to it, and more excited.”

Higher-income schools do a better job of introducing experiments about these these tough subjects, because parents donate time and tools, said Ulman.

Low income working parents often struggle to afford child care.

It was in Cleveland, while volunteering in inner city urban schools during studies at Case Western Reserve University, where Ulman discovered America’s educational gap.

“These kids were just as funny, talented, capable and goofy as any kid in the United States – but we, as a society, make assumptions about their abilities, because of where they live,” she said.

Professionally, her interests slowly turned away from theoretical chemical research, and towards social change. The mother of two, she was disappointed that the public schools didn’t offer a richer scientific curriculum.

The aim of Science is Elementary is learning through inquiry: asking questions, making observations, explaining their reasoning, then putting their ideas to the test.

“We ask questions – and they find the answers with their eyes, seeing evidence that’s based on reasoning, reality and truth,” said Goren. “It is so rewarding. The lightbulb goes on.”

Following the content standards adopted by the California State Board of Education, kindergartens learn about force and gravity; first graders, sound and light; second graders, reversibility of matter; third graders, simple machines; fourth graders, waves and energy; fifth graders, conservation of matter and other advanced concepts.

Many of the students are non-native English speakers, so the volunteers practice new and important words, like “observe,” “evidence,” and “data.”

“Scientific reasoning is crucial to be successful in our increasingly technological world,” said Ulman. “They need the ability to understand and analyze data.  They need to be able to argue, based on evidence.”

“Science, engineering and technology are part and parcel of life – it’s how we communicate with each other. And it’s where the high-paying jobs are,” she said.

The big test comes in fifth grade, when the 10-year-olds show what they’ve learned, designing experiments for kindergarteners.

“They always step up. Giving them responsibility really inspires them and gives them confidence,” she said.


THE WISH BOOK SERIES
The Wish Book is an annual series of The Mercury News that invites readers to help their neighbors.

WISH
Donations will help Science is Elementary provide hands-on science classes for elementary school children in low-income schools. Goal: $5,000

HOW TO GIVE
Donate at wishbook.mercurynews.com or mail in the coupon.

ONLINE EXTRA
Read other Wish Book stories, view photos and video at wishbook.mercurynews.com.