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UCSB Science Education
updated: Nov 14, 2012, 12:12 PM
On a sunny fall day at La Patera School in Goleta, MaryAnn Wright's second grade classroom
with energetic students returning from recess. The children seem very excited about the
appearance of another group of students -- from UC Santa Barbara -- who have just arrived
wearing lab coats and carrying basic scientific equipment.
Six UCSB students disperse around the room -- with at least one per table of kids -- and the
magic begins: Second graders create their own scientific experiments, effectively learning the
process of science a little bit at a time. This is no one-shot-deal; the UCSB students bring
this program, called SciTrek, into the classroom at least five times over a two-week period,
spending more than an hour with the children during each visit.
Today, the lessons in Wright's classroom involve concepts related to soil water retention. The
students will learn that different types of soils retain different amounts of water, and they
will learn how to read and use a graduated cylinder. Based on their experience, they will be
able to list at least three observations and identify the difference between an observation and
an inference. They will also be able to list at least two ways in which they behaved like
This visit is something of a homecoming. SciTrek was born in this particular classroom in 2010,
brought by Norbert Reich, professor in UCSB's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Wright
explained that SciTrek is very helpful in bringing the resources and infrastructure to her
classroom to help her students learn the scientific process. She has an undergraduate degree in
science, and is pleased that SciTrek began in her classroom, and that she was able to help Reich
get it started.
"Human beings just have to experience it," Reich said, of teaching the scientific process.
"There is an ‘aha' moment when you say, is that a good question?" Reich wants to help students
learn, at an early age, how science works, so they will have the skills to evaluate scientific
information -- no matter if it is about vitamins, global warming, or something else entirely.
The program is not about teaching children to become scientists, explained Reich, but rather
about educating all children in the scientific process. SciTrek has grown from its beginning in
Wright's classroom, to 20 classrooms this school year, including one in Santa Ynez. And teachers
from Goleta to Carpinteria are clamoring to have the project expanded to their classrooms.
Programs are now geared for second-, third-, and fifth-grade classrooms, with plans to include
Recognizing SciTrek as a valuable interdisciplinary opportunity, Jane Close Conoley, dean of
UCSB's Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, suggested Darby Feldwinn, a UCSB lecturer in both
education and chemistry, meet with Reich to discuss the program. Feldwinn has been involved with
SciTrek almost since its inception, overseeing the entire program and devising the curricula.
Feldwinn and Reich are evaluating SciTrek and will write up the results. Reich provides
orientation for the undergraduates participating in SciTrek, and oversees funding.
"I think there are a lot of programs out there that get students excited about science, but
don't necessarily allow them to go through the process," said Feldwinn. "There are a lot of
college-aged students who don't even understand, ‘What does the process mean? What does it mean
that we only change one variable?' They know the words, but they don't know what that actually
means, or what it looks like. This is where the disconnect is. In order to understand the
process, you have to go through it yourself. And you have to go through it several times."
Feldwinn calls this "scientific literacy," which is not only important for scientists, but also
for the general public. "Without doing things like this, I don't know how you are going to get
scientific literacy," she said.
Feldwinn explained that teaching science at the elementary school level is particularly
challenging because teachers usually do not have degrees in science. So they are often not
familiar with it, nor confident enough to give their students the freedom to create scientific
experiments -- and to generate questions that they, the teachers, might not be able to answer.
"I think this is how science has to be taught if you want people to understand what it means to
do science," said Feldwinn. "I think that's important for many reasons. Even if you are not
going to be a scientist, you are going to have to vote on issues that have science in them. You
are going to need to be able to tell when it's actually the research that's backing it up, or
when it's some politician who is telling you something, and which one of those two things is
actually science. And right now, I don't think a lot of people can do that."
Feldwinn said that bringing creativity back into teaching science is of great importance to
SciTrek programs. She explained that the students who excel at school are not always at the top
of the class in SciTrek. Students have lots of questions at the beginning, such as "Is this the
right question I've written down? Is this the right observation I've made?" She said that it
takes the kids awhile to realize that there isn't always a right or wrong, and that there can be
At the end of the SciTrek program, the students make a poster presentation showing their
results. "This is what we do as scientists," said Feldwinn. "We go to conferences and we do this
all the time." This process allows the students to question their classmates about their
results, she explained.
Currently, the program is funded by an award of $42,000 for the 2012-2013 school year from
UCSB's Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and the deans of the College of Letters and
Science, the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, the College of Engineering, and the College
of Creative Studies. Reich is looking for increased funding to expand SciTrek.
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