"Second-graders, so many of you look ready to be engineers," Olga Tuman said, standing at the white board on a December morning as a group of children sat expectantly on the carpet.
The class at East Palo Alto Charter School was in the midst of a unit on erosion, and students in pairs were designing apparatus to protect a little blue house on top of a hill of sand. After reciting the criteria for a successful design -- which they came up with themselves -- they scattered to their tables to perfect and test their projects, using a pump to blow air over their creations.
A quick glance around the room revealed that each pair's project was unique, combining Popsicle sticks, cardboard tubes, paper and similar materials. Not all the designs succeeded in meeting the criteria, among them to stop erosion and remain still, but that was precisely the point: After testing, the children had to analyze what had happened and decide how they might make improvements.
The freedom to create and discover scientific knowledge on their own is a central part of the school's science program, which received $7,500 from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund last spring. Tuman uses this inquiry-based approach with all of her first- through fifth-grade classes, and this academic year she has started training the school's kindergarten and sixth-grade teachers to teach science using similar methods.
Her efforts are part of the school's push to expose students to science early. Many students come from low-income, predominantly African-American and Latino communities, groups which have been historically underrepresented in science and engineering fields, according to Sharon Johnson, principal of East Palo Alto Charter School, which has just over 450 students.
"We would like to change those odds and spark the curiosity of students to pursue ... those careers," Johnson said.
The Holiday Fund grant has helped support teachers' professional development as well as enable the program to buy and plan for the purchase of bigger ticket items, including solar-car kits, microscopes, beginner robotics tools and code-able devices -- like a car that can navigate a path.
"With additional funds, I could buy higher price items that would give kids exposure to things like robotics that otherwise I haven't been doing because of a lack of resources," Tuman said.
While the grant is helping to bring new and exciting lessons to students, the innovative inquiry-based teaching came with Tuman, who is now in her fourth year at the charter school. Prior to her arrival, the school had no dedicated science teacher and students learned about the subject mainly through reading textbooks.
Tuman previously worked at Citizen Schools after-school program in Redwood City and San Mateo Outdoor Education, and the training she received there and elsewhere introduced her to ways to challenge students to think more deeply about a subject.
"Oftentimes, you can take something that could otherwise be a really rigorous activity, like engineering their own design, but really ... suck the rigor out of it by doing the thinking for them along the way ... like (by) scaffolding it via a million 'yes' or 'no' questions," she said.
Instead, today she has students investigate a science-related mystery or question through projects and explorations in which she only provides strategies and methods -- drawing a design, determining criteria and testing, for example -- for finding an answer or solution. Throughout that discovery, she checks for understanding to make sure students are learning along the way.
"You can read in a book that 'blank and blank materials protect against erosion,' and you would never question it," Tuman said. "But if you're in a position to try different materials out and sort of find those problems, you're in a way better place to really figure out for yourself what is true."
As students get older and learn more about the scientific method and engineering processes, she gives them more responsibility. For a recent engineering project, sixth-grade students built solar ovens and collected data using thermometers and organized the information in tables.
Principal Johnson noted that Tuman's approach also helps develop students' ability to collaborate, a skill they will need in high school, college and beyond. Part of Tuman's teaching covers "criteria for good science talk," she said, which encompasses ways to express agreement and disagreement, suggest new ideas and boil them down when there are too many.
Malia Gonzalez, a fourth-grader, gave an example of a project to design a hearing device, in which students had studied the ears of various animals for inspiration.
"It takes a lot of partnership to do stuff," Gonzalez said, "So me and my partner were disagreeing a lot, and then we were like, 'Wait, what we saw during those pictures was they had big ears, so we have to do something that has big ears.'"
Gonzalez and fellow fourth-grader Rene Alcaraz said that taking on the role of a scientist or engineer makes them feel older and more mature.
"For me, I feel like I'm actually a grown-up doing some cool work because it's really hard to understand," Alcaraz said. "But then after we go a little bit further into the stuff, we learn a little bit more ... and then we understand it more."
When Tuman first started teaching at the school, students were somewhat confused by the freedom of her teaching methods and would ask for more direction, she said. But now they trust themselves to take risks and, if it doesn't work, to try something else.
Gonzalez and Alcaraz both spoke excitedly about the subjects they have explored in science, which ranged from energy to space exploration, and shared their aspirations to pursue science as a career (Alcaraz is determined to become a video game designer).
"They're very enthusiastic, they love all things science, and I don't think that has anything to do with me," Tuman said of all her students. "They're just so thirsty for knowledge; they're so curious about their world."
Donations to the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund can be made at the Holiday Fund page here.