Back when you were in elementary school, you probably got the chance to build a simple circuit so you could understand how a light bulb works—or fondly recall some of that messy fun you got to have in the lab, building miniature erupting volcanoes or mixing bubbling brews.
Unfortunately, state budget cuts to public education are making these sorts of learning tools a luxury that many schools can’t afford. However, at Ocean Knoll Elementary in Encinitas, kids are getting these hands-on science lessons regularly thanks to a partnership with UC San Diego’s BioCircuits Institute.
“If you’ve ever watched a kid do a hands-on experiment, then you know it makes them wake up and care about learning,” explains UCSD BCI director Dr. Jeff Hasty, who launched the program about a year ago with help from Roya Mahmoudi, the outreach coordinator for the institute. “We are born wondering how things work. This is a natural and important part of the learning process.”
Every week, a group of seven UCSD graduate students ensure that learning process happens at Ocean Knoll. They work with science classes in grades 3 through 6, teaching and directing experiments that aim to be fun and educational. The kids get to do things like study potential and kinetic energy using marbles and pool toys—and construct models of plant and animal cells using candy.
“We also work in teams building things, like a building, and see if it can survive an earthquake,” adds Ocean Knoll fourth-grade student Lucie Shamlou. “I was counting down the days until we could test it!”
“My students like the fact that they are allowed to take home the science materials they use in class to further explore at home,” adds Ocean Knoll third-grade teacher Susan Voaklander. “They love the challenge of the experiments, projects and lessons that require higher levels of thinking.”
And it’s not just the students doing the learning, Hasty points out. Mahmoudi develops lesson plans based on state standards, and every week the USCD graduate students share that curriculum with the Ocean Knoll teachers—thereby creating a legacy at the school that will keep on giving for years to come. The UCSD graduate students are also growing professionally as they give back to the communities where they do their research, something that’s becoming increasingly important when applying for grants.
The Ocean Knoll program is funded for four-years through a grant from the National Science Foundation—and its been able to thrive thanks to the support of UCSD, Hasty says.
“UCSD is a wonderful institution because they take a hands-off approach and let you pursue programs like this the way you see fit while offering you all the encouragement and tools you need to make it happen,” he says.
And so, what began as an experiment in elementary science education has proven to be a success—so much so, in fact, that Hasty and Mahmoudi are in early talks to expand the program to other schools around San Diego County.
“It feels good to be doing this,” Hasty said. “I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing: Giving back to the society that helped me get here.”
For more information about the partnership, please visit biocircuits.ucsd.edu/outreach/.