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Child Health Month Experts at San Francisco State University


Contact: Merrik Bush-Pirkle
phone: (415) 338-1665

Inner city "science playgrounds" will serve at-risk youth across U.S.

On heels of study declaring that California-based program "captured lightening in a bottle," NSF awards SF State second $3 million grant to replicate after-school science workshops across the nation

SAN FRANCISCO-When the school day ends in some of California's poorest communities, children as young as 8 years old flock to free neighborhood science centers to learn physics, chemistry, biology and engineering. Their fear of science is transformed into a delight in learning as they build batterypowered cars, spin clay into bowls, and marvel at Lilliputian worlds revealed in a splash of pond water. Now, underserved and atrisk youth outside California will get the same opportunity to discover a world b eyond the streets but still within their neighborhoods.

A $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will enable San Francisco State University and partners including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) to replicate these informal dropin science centers, called Community Science Workshops (CSW), in urban and rural communities across America.

"We're providing kids a chance to overcome their intimidation about science," said Dan Sudran, founder of Mission Science Workshop, the original CSW located in San Francisco's inner city Mission District. "To them, it's not 'science,' it's fun. The workshop offers a safe, playgroundlike environment where they can experiment, make mistakes and learn. They get hooked and they keep coming back."

A fiveyear study of the CSWs states: "They have succeeded not only in creating places where minority and atrisk youth are motivated to go, but in creating an experience these youth value." The independent study, commissioned by SFSU, added that a national CSW network is "worthy of pursuit."

SFSU first helped Sudran replicate his informal science program in underserved California communities four years ago with an initial $3 million NSF grant. All 10 sites, in Fresno, San Jose, Los Angeles, Watsonville and Oakland, became selfsupporting through community partnerships. Satellite workshops sprouted in neighboring communities as parents, schools and kids discovered their appeal.

"The study's authors said we'd 'captured lightening in a bottle' with these workshops," said Paul Fonteyn, associate vice president of SFSU's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and author of the NSF grant. "If the centers can succeed here, they can succeed in just about any American neighborhood."

CSWs primarily serve kids aged 8 to 15. Located in predominantly minority communities, they are accessible by foot to local children. Workshops have interactive exhibits, resident animals, handson experiments and workspace in which to "tinker" with all manner of tools. Bilingual staff supervise, answer questions, and teach, but children are left largely to themselves once embarking on a project.

"This is doityourself science with an emphasis on enjoying the sense of discovery that comes with experimentation," said Sudran, a science enthusiast whose homespun Exploratorium found permanent residence in City College of San Francisco's Mission Campus building in 1991.

CSWs also enhance formal science standards by offering onsite science programs to neighboring schools that generally lack the resources and expertise of their local CSW and staff.

Initially, eight of 15 targeted sites will be launched in cities including Tucson, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Detroit, Seattle, New York and Washington, D.C., with at least one workshop located on or near a Native American reservation. The sites will serve as "hubs" for developing spinoff sites, said Fonteyn, who likens the concept to a main city library with its neighborhood branches. "CSWs in that region will share resources, but each one will reflect the cultural needs of their communities."

According to the study, conducted by Inverness Research Associates, 61% of youth who frequented the informal science workshops were Hispanic, 19% AfricanAmerican, 10% Asian, 6% white and 4% Native American. Ninetyfive percent were from lower socioeconomic families and 37% were at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. Nearly half the participants were girls.

The CSW formula is a major institution collaborating with a community partner that serves atrisk youth. For example, the Smithsonian Zoo, which lobbied Sudran to expand nationwide after visiting Mission Science two years ago, is working with the Latin American Youth Center to develop a site in the rough Adams Morgan area of Washington, D.C. It will serve as the regional center for additional CSWs.

"It's a way for large institutions to bring their vast resources to kids who, for any number of reasons that plague poor children, wouldn't otherwise get to benefit from these places," said Sudran.

Mission Science will serve as the center of the nationwide CSW network, providing leadership and guidance for existing and new sites. Fonteyn and Sudran will oversee selection and training of site directors, provide funding and materials, and ensure that new workshops are properly developed. QEM will help identify sites and establish community partnerships in target cities. As a primary collaborator, AAAS will develop a website for the CSW network and produce "howto" materials for setting up a CSW and p resenting science concepts to traditionally underserved youth. An advisory board made up of leaders from the public and private sector will help broaden support of the CSWs within the academic, industrial and governmental sectors.

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NOTE: For contact information and copies of the study, "The Community Science Workshops: A Report on Their Progress," please contact Merrik BushPirkle at (415) 3386747;

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Last modified April 24, 2007, by Office of Public Affairs