For many years, middle school students in the Ravenswood City School District — located in the heart of Silicon Valley, with some of the world's top technology companies as its neighbors — had little to no formalized science instruction during their school day.
Ravenswood's primary focus has been on literacy and math for a student population that is primarily low income and whose families are non-native English speaking. As a result, science largely fell by the wayside, leaving Ravenswood students unprepared for lab courses in high school, which widened the achievement gap between them and peers from better resourced middle schools.
But today, thanks to a volunteer-led effort and funding from the nonprofit Ravenswood Education Foundation, there is a fledgling but thriving science program that's giving students hands-on experience, from frog dissections to physics experiments, in a way the East Palo Alto K-8 district never has before.
More than 10 years ago, Menlo Park resident Elizabeth Schar, a volunteer with the Ravenswood Education Foundation, was shocked to hear the foundation's executive director describe a connection between the district's lack of science labs and Ravenswood students' low high school graduation rates.
"The theory was that the students didn't do well in high school science labs because they lacked confidence and were embarrassed — not knowing what to do," she said. "As a result, the students would start skipping science labs, which then led to skipping other classes and eventually led to failure to graduate."
She helped to launch a church-funded initiative to upgrade nonfunctioning science labs for Ravenswood middle school students. (One lab had been turned into a girls' locker room; one school had never had a lab; and other labs were "filled to the ceiling with junk," Schar said.)
But as the group from Menlo Church — all local engineers volunteering their time — worked to bring the labs up to date, they realized that the district needed not only the physical investment, but an educational one: preparation for teachers who had no training or experience in lab science, Schar said.
She worked to recruit local science and engineering professionals, students and teachers to volunteer in the classrooms, helping middle school teachers with lesson planning and execution of the labs.
Over the years, as Ravenswood teachers have assumed more responsibility for the program, the volunteers have taken on a more supportive role — helping students understand directions, record data and draw conclusions, said Renu Nanda, executive director of the Ravenswood Education Foundation. Since its launch in 2009, the foundation has given millions of dollars to fund a range of enrichment programs, teaching and staff positions, mental health counseling and other investments in the Ravenswood school district.
Today, the education foundation manages a volunteer corp of about 30 to 40 people who are still providing critical support for teachers managing busy science classrooms.
While Amanda Eskildsen, a lead science teacher at Los Robles Magnet Academy, is pulling the materials together and managing the classroom, the volunteers walk around and ask the kids questions about what they're doing and get them to talk, Eskildsen said.
"That is just so huge for me," she said. The volunteer is "really diving in and getting to the deeper concepts, which I don't usually have time to do in that setting."
Five years ago, Ravenswood students participated in about 10 science labs each year, on such topics as physics, chemistry and life and earth sciences. They learn about kinetic energy by rolling a marble through model rollercoasters, about ecosystems by creating biome shoeboxes in the makerspaces, about germs by testing the cleanliness of their own classrooms.
Now, the teachers have a goal of 20 labs per year — which is still far fewer than at more affluent schools, where students work in labs about 100 days a year, according to the Ravenswood Education Foundation.
The district has invested in curriculum development and teacher training, including paying Eskildsen to work over the summer and breaks this year to develop a science curriculum that's aligned with the state's new Next Generation Science Standards. Eskildsen is one of only two Ravenswood teachers in the entire district with a single-subject credential in science, which she recently obtained with the support of the district. She now leads monthly trainings for other middle school teachers, walking them through several labs.
Ravenswood also launched several years ago an annual STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) fair, with students' projects judged by local scientists and engineers. The winners and their parents are invited to a "Dinner with a Scientist," at which they eat and talk with local professionals about their career paths.
Ravenswood students also now participate in the San Mateo County STEM Fair. (The first year, in 2014, two fifth-grade girls went on to win first place for their engineering projects. A county judge thought Ravenswood was a new school because the district had never before been represented, Nanda said.) This year, two Willow Oaks Elementary School students won a special award at the county fair for a social-science experiment: They showed African-American, Latino and white Barbie dolls to other students and surveyed them about racial and other perceptions.
Every Ravenswood campus also now has a makerspace, which the education foundation launched with seed funding in 2014 and for which it now pays about half the cost, Nanda said. District leadership frequently champions the makerspaces as an example of the district's growing emphasis on STEM.
"We changed the conversation about science — instead of it being an afterthought, it's become a leading thought," Schar said.
The district opened this fall its first standalone middle school, which school leadership and the science volunteers hope will help Ravenswood attract more credentialed science teachers. The district plans to build this summer a wing of science labs with funding from a $26 million bond voters passed in 2016.
"We're going to have what pretty much other students in Silicon Valley have in terms of a science lab," Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff said in an interview. "We're really excited about that."
Ravenswood's science program is almost entirely funded by the Ravenswood Education Foundation, which has spent nearly $1 million over the last six years on science materials and a new middle school science-lab-coordinator position. (The district still pays for the teachers.)
The investment is producing results: From 2012 to 2016, there was a 30 percent increase in the number of Ravenswood students earning a C or better in the first semester of their first year high school science class, according to the foundation.
Eskildsen said she's also seen her students' test scores go up in science.
Menlo-Atherton High School science teachers have noticed a difference in Ravenswood students as well. Crystal Gilfillan, who has taught science at Menlo-Atherton for nine years, said the earlier exposure to labs means students arrive with the foundational understanding of scientific concepts necessary to succeed in high school and beyond.
"I can remember trying to just do a basic graph with students when I first started here and they would look at you blindly, like they had never seen a graph before," she said in an interview. "It's really the basic skills that are so important to get us through the rest of the year that I've seen a big improvement on."
She used to have to spend a significant amount of time at the start of the year to bring Ravenswood freshmen up to speed on the basics, from what a beaker is to the metric system. She did not see the same gaps in students coming from Hillview or La Entrada middle schools, where teachers said labs have always been part of the science curriculum.
Two of the "most noticeable skills" she's seen in Ravenswood students in recent years are being able to identify lab equipment and write more detailed procedures.
"The students who raise their hand and say, 'Yeah, I did a lab on this' — those are the students who usually do better," Gilfillan said. "Just that exposure to the equipment, that scientific thinking — having a problem in front of them and having to do a hands-on experiment to figure it out, it just does wonders."
Ravenswood still has a long way to go before its middle school students reach parity with their peers in neighboring districts.
Ravenswood still has no adopted science curriculum districtwide, with individual teachers, including Eskildsen, working to fill in the gaps by purchasing materials on their own (and getting reimbursed by the education foundation) and developing new curriculum. When Eskildsen first started in Ravenswood four years ago, she was shocked to find neither formal science nor math curricula. The district adopted a math curriculum last year and aims to adopt one for science in the next two to three years, she said.
The district has only one set of science lab materials, shared among 18 teachers. (During her prep period, Eskildsen often drives to other campuses to drop off supplies.) Not every school has its own lab space; Los Robles students, for example, walk across campus to use a lab at the new Ravenswood Middle School. This makes on-the-spot learning or even completing unfinished labs difficult, Eskildsen said, particularly for new teachers or ones who are not as involved with the program as she is.
"Just that culture of ... 'I want to figure this out; let me go grab this and show you real quick' — I can't just on a whim do a demonstration like maybe I would if I were in a science lab when a question comes up," she said.
Some teachers have also embraced lab science more than others. Eskildsen, for example, brings her students to the lab weekly and aims for about 30 to 40 labs per year. She said that teachers need science-specific professional development, as much of their training is still focused on English language development.
The foundation-funded science program is largely protected from an ongoing budget shortfall that resulted in more than $5 million in cuts this year, with more expected in the coming years. The district has, however, been paying Eskildsen an hour or two of overtime each month to work on science curriculum and training, and Hernandez-Goff recently implemented a freeze on all overtime spending.
For many Ravenswood middle school students, science is now their favorite time during the school day. On a recent afternoon in Eskildsen's class, eighth graders were putting the finishing touches on presentations for their science fair projects. Two girls teamed up to test how different helmet designs might protect athletes from concussions, while a group of boys sought to determine the best angle from which to shoot a basketball.
Students Maria Chapa and Gaby Reyes chose to examine the health effects of cigarettes versus vaping, using a plastic bottle to mimic a human lung. They observed the smell and color of a cotton ball inside the bottle as evidence.
The science labs are "more fun" than other school activities, Chapa said. She said she appreciates the real-world, experiential learning. The girls quickly cited labs they enjoyed last year, from balloon car races to examining a human brain.
Science had a life-changing impact on two of Eskildsen's former students, twins who arrived at Los Robles in sixth grade after losing their mother and immigrating to the United States from El Salvador. Juan and Karla Garrido were "painfully shy and knew very little English," Eskildsen said, but took to the science labs, where they were "able to engage in learning in a hands-on way."
Eskildsen also credited the science labs, which require ample reading, writing and discussion, with significant gains the twins made in English and an overall improvement in their grades. In just two years, both improved by at least one level on a state standardized English test. It takes most students at least two to three years to make that progress, she said.
For the districtwide science fair, Juan and Karla decided to study the effectiveness of different methods for cleaning up oil spills, using materials like raw fish, bird feathers and motor oil (paid for by the Ravenswood Education Foundation) in their experiments.
They went on to win second place in the district's science fair and a special award at the county STEM fair.
Both are now freshmen at Menlo-Atherton, where their teachers tell Eskildsen that they are doing well in science.
About 900 Ravenswood middle school students are exposed to the science program each year, down from about 1,000 in past years when enrollment was higher, Nanda said. The education foundation is looking next to help the district hire credentialed science teachers for seventh and eighth graders at the new comprehensive middle school.
"Science is so important because it provides students a way to understand the world around them — making observations, identifying patterns, asking questions and problem-solving in a collaborative way," she said. "REF looks forward to making these opportunities possible for our students, by building partnerships, engaging skilled volunteers and of course providing funding to fill the gaps."