A ‘science Disneyland’
Chico State’s Hands-On Science Lab is a precious resource for local schools
Does anyone know what a current is?” Six fifth-grade scientists in lab coats and safety goggles ponder the question for just a moment before offering a suggestion: It is something that moves, like water in a river.
The college intern guiding the lesson then compares this idea to the flow of current in a conductor and motions to the equipment spread out in front of them. “What things are needed to complete an electrical circuit?” They shout out their answers with confidence: “Wires!” “Batteries!” “Light bulbs!”
Welcome to the Hands-On Lab, a resource for local elementary- and middle-school teachers and their students to take on the role of scientist while they encounter one of eight science subjects, from plate tectonics to photosynthesis, in a real science lab overseen by Chico State University student interns. Coordinated on campus by the Center for Math and Science Education, it’s visited by almost 2,000 kids every semester.
Once the students have mastered the basics of circuitry, they must next unravel the mystery of the “secret circuits.” Fifth-grader Earl Ray helps me figure it out. “You try to find the circuit that will make the light go on,” he explains patiently. And if it does light up, what does that mean? “It means the electricity could go through.”
At another table, an intern picks up a pencil wrapped in copper. “Will this pencil pick up these paper clips?” she asks. The young scientists shake their heads no. “What about now?” she continues, holding up a battery wrapped in wire. The result is, well, shocking.
Dave Schmidt, one of the half-dozen interns assisting in today’s lesson, likes the lab’s structure. With one intern placed at each of six stations, students get to spend 15 minutes with each of them as they work their way around the room. “It’s kind of cool in a smaller group because you get to actually talk to them a little more,” he says.
The emphasis on active learning is another big plus. “They have free rein to experiment with all these materials,” Schmidt says, adding, “They totally love it. Once I explain what they’re doing and they get into it, they just have a blast and don’t want to rotate [to the next station].”
Heather Drickey is an intern in her second term of the program, which earns her a unit for “Leadership in Science Teaching.” She spends two hours in the lab once a week and follows it up with a debriefing from 4 to 6 that evening.
“It’s a fun thing to come in and be with the little kids, the fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders,” she divulges. “And, it’ll look good on your transcripts to show that you have an internship in science teaching. Most of the people in here are going to be teachers, which is great experience for them.”
Tanya Heaston, a credentialed teacher working on her master’s degree, has been the HOL’s coordinator since 2002, when it took its current form. She moves through the lab in an athletic and professional manner, long brown hair pulled back in a business-like ponytail. For Heaston, the experience for these interns, these “teachers-to-be,” is essential.
“Teachers learn how to teach well by studying the different ways of teaching and trying themselves what works best for them,” she explains. “You can’t just throw them in and say, ‘Now you can sink or swim.’ It would be nice if we taught them a few strokes, and then they could choose how to swim.”
This internship is now a required, capstone class for liberal-studies students (who are likely to go into elementary-school teaching). A number of science majors are doing the internship as well, for experience teaching, as a service-learning project or to build their resumes.
The lab isn’t just an educational experience for the interns—it’s for the teachers, as well. A Math and Science Partnership grant supports the travel of schools to the lab this year from southern Butte County, and a grant from the California Science Project (CSP) allows for additional professional development of teachers from other partnership districts.
“Historically, science was taught in an elementary classroom according to what a teacher really felt comfortable teaching. Certain topics, like dinosaurs, or the butterfly life cycle, or seeds, or whatever they liked, were common topics,” explains Heaston. “Many didn’t feel comfortable going outside their area of expertise, such as teaching about the physics and chemistry of matter, water, electricity, magnetism, forces and energy.
“We get the teachers in here to see that science is fun, have the teachers see college students teaching science at a level that they can do,” she continues. “We have a resource for them to come in and learn it, get ideas, get supplies, get information. When the teachers feel successful, they share that with the students.”
Victor Borquez is the teacher of today’s fifth-graders, here from Palermo School. He heard about the lab from a fellow teacher, who set up the trip for him. He loves the fact that it’s hands-on. “You can’t teach science from a book and get a whole lot out of it. Especially in fifth grade, the kids can’t relate what you’re learning in a book to how you can apply it.”
The pint-sized scientists are probably the biggest winners. “Children will remember something that is emotionally pleasing for longer than something that has no emotion at all,” says Heaston. “They may not remember the three elements that are magnetic, but they will remember, ‘That was really fun science!’ And, ‘I liked it and I know I can learn it and I want to learn more!’ And that is more important in the long run.”
I track down Bev Marcum, head of the Hands-On Lab, in her campus office one late Friday afternoon to find out how this whole program got started. We sit a couple of feet apart, amidst bookcases and desks overflowing with papers, memos, and textbooks, a reminder of her many other incarnations: as a biology faculty member, as well as director of the Inland Northern California Science Project, a professional development organization for area teachers.
“Something this important usually doesn’t start out full-blown right away. It starts out small.” She leans forward, her short brown hair framing a face that scrunches into a questioning smile. Her inner biologist shines through. “You know how little tiny fruit fly larvae develop?” I struggle to recollect the process of insect metamorphosis. “First instar, second instar, third instar larva"—ah yes, those strange, immature forms—"and then the thing pupates, goes through metamorphosis, and emerges as a fully functional adult fly…” Her grin broadens. “I kind of liken the whole development of the Hands-On Lab to the growth of an almost invisible program, and then some type of stimulus—a little push, a little money—and it metamorphosed into a very visible entity.”
Marcum acknowledges the many important influences contributing to the nourishment of the lab, as it goes back two decades, with many people involved in its evolution. But legend has that it all started with Mina Hector, a now-retired biochemistry professor, arranging a field trip for her elementary-aged sons and their classes to visit her lab on campus. She had some of her college students instruct the students in simple activities. It became so popular that it grew to require scheduling through the Center for Math and Science Teaching (CMSE).
In 1999, Cindy Phelps became the center’s co-director, charged with overseeing curriculum improvements and renovation of the Hands-On Lab. With the help of Chemistry Department Chairman Jim Postma, the lab found its permanent and current home in the Physical Sciences Building.
During this time, Department of Mathematics faculty member LaDawn Haws was collaborating with College of Natural Sciences shop technician Felix Wolfe to create 98 different stations for a hands-on science exhibit at the Chico Museum. Haws used her experience (and newly produced materials) to add to the evolving lab on campus.
“It’s just been an incredible experience to do this," Marcum shares, "As far as the reward, it’s like a science Disneyland!"