Holiday Spirit

Christine Smith, an educator with the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, teaches second-graders about the fundamentals of balance and mass during her visit to Los Robles Magnet Academy School in East Palo Alto as part of the museum's science outreach program. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Posted November 17, 2017

Junior Museum and Zoo brings hands-on science to the classroom
Outreach program from Palo Alto institution targets low-income communities

By Gennady Sheyner

"I did it!" said Brian, a second-grader at the Los Robles Magnet Academy in East Palo Alto, as he balanced on his finger an upside-down paper cutout of a man.

He was the first student in Monica Banuelas' class of 17 to crack the code during Thursday's lesson on balance — a concept taught by Christine Smith, a science teacher with the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. The secret? Taping one of the two pennies he was provided on each of the paper-man's arms.

Over the course of the 50-minute class, the students learned the basics of balance by backing up against the wall and trying to touch their toes; balancing paper figures on their fingers; and performing a similar exercise with a flattened stick and bearings. They then concluded the session by recapping the lessons learned and striking various poses.

A second-grader at Los Robles Elementary tries to figure out how to balance a Popsicle stick on his finger using counter weights in a lesson prepared by Christine Smith, an educator at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo.
For Smith, who led off the discussion with a demonstration using plastic weighing scales, this was the latest in a four-class series on motion. Students recalled the prior lesson, in which they constructed roller-coasters to accommodate rolling marbles and learned about gravity.

Smith was at the school as part of the Junior Museum and Zoo's Science Outreach Program. Though the Palo Alto institution is best known for its popular museum at Rinconada Park and its famous cast of characters, which includes Sequoia, Tule and Claude (respectively, a bald eagle, a bobcat and a hedgehog), its instructors also spread the museum's scientific offerings beyond the Palo Alto borders, to communities with more challenges and fewer resources.

For this endeavor, the nonprofit received last year a $5,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund — money that helped provide 32 lessons to 180 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. This included courses about the solar system, kinetic energy and life sciences.

"I think there's something to be said for hands-on experience," said Cynthia Chin, principal of Willow Oaks Elementary School, an east Menlo Park school that also gets regular lessons through the science program. "Our kids may not have some of the exposure to the different science experiences. Rather than just learning it from a book or watching some video, they get to actually touch and feel.

"For some of the kids, it's the favorite time of the school year."

For some lessons, a classroom at Willow Oaks would transform into a miniature planetarium — with a starlit night simulated in a domed enclosure known as a STARLAB — and students turn into amateur astronomers, identifying stars and using telescopes for daytime observations. On other days, students build volcanoes, construct tiny homes that can withstand manufactured earthquakes or create a habitat for a roly-poly.

The science-outreach services began locally, at Addison and Walter Hays elementary schools, and grew over the years before spreading to other local schools and to neighboring communities, said Alex Hamilton, the Junior Museum and Zoo's education director. In 1999, the Junior Museum and Zoo launched its Science Outreach Program, which focused on schools that can't afford science labs and field trips for their students. Since then, it has slowly spread to other communities, including Sunnyvale's Vargas Elementary School.

Last year, the program brought its science programs to more than 1,600 students in the Ravenswood City School District. According to the Friends group, participating schools are considered to be "at risk" based on numerous indicators. Of those they serve, 87 percent are eligible for free lunch (well above the California average of 58.5 percent), 67 percent are English Language Learners (higher than state average is 21 percent), and they score an average of 712 on the Academic Performance Index (below the statewide goal of 800).

Unlike the more affluent Palo Alto schools, which get supplemental support from parents — including about $150,000 per year for the Junior Museum and Zoo's science offerings in elementary schools — Ravenswood schools often are unable to fund these "extras." To address the disparity, the museum provides its 50-minute classes to Willow Oaks and other Ravenswood schools at no cost to the school district.

One of the things that sets the Junior Museum and Zoo program apart from other science classes at local schools is the tools it has at its disposal, Hamilton said. In addition to live animals such as ferrets and tarantulas and its expansive rock collection, the organization offers access to scientific tools like microscopes, lightning-bolt generators and the like.

To date, the feedback for the program has been overwhelmingly positive from both the teachers and the students, Hamilton told the Weekly.

"The kids — they love science, especially in East Palo Alto, because they don't get some of those wild experiences that some of the kids in Palo Alto get," Hamilton said.

She recalled a recent class in which the children made phones out of tin cans.

"Once they see that these phones work, it blows their mind," Hamilton said.

In addition to providing the lessons, the Junior Museum and Zoo also regularly hires outside assessors to observe the science programs and report on the results. Last April, a Pleasant Hill-based consulting firm evaluated the science program in Vargas Elementary School in Sunnyvale, where every single teacher who participated indicated that he or she would recommend the program to others (91 percent indicating they would "strongly recommend" it).

Students are also enthusiastic about the program. On Thursday, about a dozen hands shot up every time Smith asked a question, including at the end, when she asked them what they had learned. Some talked about weights; others about balance. One girl focused on the practical, rather than the theoretical.

"I never knew you can balance paper on a finger," she said.

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