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Science program gets a boost

Posted: Tuesday, Jan 24th, 2012

David Garcia (second from right) heads an Environmental Science Workshop Monday with students from Cesar Chavez Middle School where students made model motorboats. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula)

For 15 years, Watsonville’s Environmental Science Workshop has provided a place for students who love hands-on science, but find it missing from their everyday curriculum.

Now, a $73,000 grant from the Community Science Workshop will help the workshop further that mission.

The grant, which came from the Moore Foundation and the Bechtel Foundation, was meant to help the Watsonville Community Science Workshop program expand its offerings, workshop coordinator Curt Gabrielson said.

“They saw this grant as a way of solidifying a broader base of science workshops,” he said.

Gabrielson spearheaded the program in 1997 with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The city took over the program in 2000 and has been supporting it ever since.

But to keep it running, the workshop depends on grants to leverage the money it gets from the city, Gabrielson said.

The program now serves some 600 kids a week, and has branched out to several new locations in Watsonville. The expansion is largely due to a newly formed statewide Community Science Workshop Network that has led to six programs in the Pajaro Valley that serve about 18,000 kids per year.

The grant will help the workshop hire an assistant to help run the local programs, continue to employ a curriculum specialist and help Gabrielson attend conferences and training with other workshop directors.

The program offers hands-on science projects to students from second to 12th grade, but Gabrielson said it is the “open-door, open-structure” format at the workshops that sparks kids’ interest and keeps them coming back.

“Kids and their families can go and explore and design and create projects out of their own imaginations,” he said.

Gabrielson also runs a student teaching project, which employs college and high school students who visit more than a dozen schools each week to work with kids.

On Monday afternoon, David Garcia, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2009, was helping a group of Cesar Chavez Middle School students build motorboats that, ideally, were supposed to float in water.

At the end of the experiment, some floated serenely across the surface, while others sputtered half-heartedly. Some sank or capsized.

But whether their boats sank or swam, the students were clearly having a good time.

“I come here for fun,” said Jessica Ayala, 12. “We get to do stuff we’ve never done before.”

Since Garcia started working with the students, he said they learned the basics of electronics, then moved on to building simple motors. They eventually graduated to making cars, then started on their boats. Next quarter, they will try their hands at making airplanes.

While teachers and assistants are there to help them, the students are free to come up with their own designs.

“They get to bring their imagination to the projects,” Garcia said.

According to Garcia, the workshops show students a different side of science.

“They actually get to live what it means to be a scientist,” he said. “At the end of the day they get it.”

For Sarah Estrada, 12, school offers few options and little time for hands-on projects.

“You learn most of this stuff at school, but it can be boring,” she said. “But here we actually get to build things.”

The Watsonville program is part of the Community Science Workshop Network, which includes workshops in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Greenfield and Fresno.

Using materials gleaned from multiple locations, including the Buena Vista Landfill, the students can embark on nearly limitless projects, which can range from welding to planting seeds and seeing how they grow to building a birdhouse.

Too often, schools let scientific experiments fall by the wayside as they focus on their core curriculum, Gabrielson said.

“Hands-on science is an endangered species in schools,” Gabrielson said. “Hardly anyone gets to do anything like that in school.”


The Watsonville Environmental Science workshops are at the following locations:

• The Marinovich Park Community Center, 120 Second St., on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 3:30-6:30 p.m. and on Wednesdays from 2-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• The Arthur Road Baptist Church gym, 360 Arthur Road, on Thursdays from 2:30-5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.

• The Watsonville Neighborhood Services building, 37 Davis Ave., on Fridays from 3-5 p.m.

For information, call 768-3256.

For the complete article see the 01-24-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-24-2012 paper.

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Keywords: science, workshops, environment, students, hands-on science

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