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InBusiness - Friday, July 10, 2009
For the love of science

by Jennifer Pence

Despite the ubiquitous presence of science and innovation in the Bay Area, Bay Area students receive woefully little instruction in science.

A 2007 survey by UC Berkeley revealed that 16 percent of Bay Area elementary school teachers provide no science instruction, while another survey shows that elementary students receive an average of 20 minutes of science instruction per week. In light of this, it should probably be no surprise that 40 percent of fifth graders in Santa Clara County failed to achieve the "proficient" level in science on the 2008 STAR tests.

For the past 55 years, the Youth Science Institute has been working to remediate this problem by providing hands-on science experience to South Bay students from pre-school through high school. Each year, over 33,000 students benefit from YSI's programs. A wide range of schools, including Landels and Castro elementary schools in Mountain View, take part in these programs. In fact, 10 percent of Santa Clara County students attend a YSI program each year, a number that the organization hopes to grow to 50 percent within a decade.

YSI has facilities in three locations: Alum Rock Park, which has a birds of prey aviary; Sanborn Park, which hosts an annual insect fair; and Vasona Park, which has amphibian tanks. Schools can join programs on topics such as biology, chemistry, physics, geology or astronomy for about $300.

However, even these relatively affordable field trips pose a challenge for some local schools, which may have an annual field trip budget of as little as $1 per student — not even enough to hire a bus for the trip. In these cases, YSI takes its show on the road, bringing animals to local schools for a 90-minute show-and-tell program that can reach even more students.

YSI strives to provide unique and engaging experiences that will spark a life-long love of science. Development director Aurea DeFranco explains: "We foster children to think creatively and interactively through hands-on science and nature programs. In Silicon Valley, an area that was put on the map by creative thinkers and where innovation takes place around every corner, we need to ensure that our children are given the opportunities to experiment, put theories to test, and get down and dirty with science and nature."

Recently, YSI nearly had to shut its doors due to budget constraints. Even though it does charge for its services, the true cost of each school program is about $500, meaning that YSI subsidizes about $200 per program. YSI organized a $300,000 fundraising campaign and successfully met this goal in the spring, growing its individual donor base 800 percent, from 150 individual donors to over 1,100. Touchingly, many schools and students who had benefited from YSI's programs rallied around the cause and helped collect money to keep the Youth Science Institute up and running.

YSI also derives revenue, and inspires a love of science, through its summer camps, which run weekly this year from June 15 to Aug. 14 for children from preschool-age to sixth grade. There are still some spaces available in the camps, which cost between $150 and $280 per week. Visit www.youthscience.org to learn more or to register.

"Our Sanborn and Vasona Park Science and Nature Centers are easily accessible to Mountain View residents and provide beautiful environments for children to get immersed in topics such as Radical Reptiles, Bike Hikes, or Phunky Physics for a week," says DeFranco.

Also, YSI is always seeking volunteers, from middle school-age students to adults. See the "volunteering" link on the YSI Web site for the wide range of opportunities available.

Jennifer Pence lives in Mountain View. She is founder of the Windmill Giving Circle and founder and owner of Academic Springboard, a tutoring group. She can be reached at japence@hotmail.com.

Posted by EJB, a resident of another community, on July 13, 2009 at 10:31 am
V. interesting article.

Posted by Mike L, a resident of the Monta Loma neighborhood, on July 14, 2009 at 11:09 PM
We're spending about $9000 per K-12 pupil. Why isn't that paying for more science education?

Posted by Parent, a resident of the Waverly Park neighborhood, on July 31, 2009 at 9:35 am
Our kids do receive Science instruction in elementary school. They use the Foss Science kits, which is a curriculum that provides hands-on, experiment-based science learning from first grade on. I always loved that program. My memory of science education was reading boring facts, and I hated it. The only good memories I have of science in elementary school were on the rare occasions when the teacher would demonstrate a cool concept and I could see it in action. This is what the kids get to do with Foss. They keep science journals, learn about the scientific process -- start with a hypothesis, go through the experiment, and write up their conclusion. I know my kids scored in the advanced range on the state 5th-grade science test, and they didn't get any extra supplementation in science.

I just hope they never completely replace the hands-on curriculum with a textbook-based one, as I think that would be tragic.

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