Youth workshops explore science
The first time 10-year-old Sol McKinney set foot inside the Mission Science Workshop, he wired together two six-volt batteries to make a heater and was instantly hooked on science.
McKinney was one of the first students of the Mission Science Workshop—a nonprofit organization that partners with local schools to offer K-12 students in the Mission District a hands on, experiential approach to science that is often absent in classrooms.
Now a graduate of U.C. Davis with a degree in ecology, McKinney returned to the organization as a teacher and manages the workshop’s newest branch in the Excelsior District.
“It was probably one of the reasons why I decided to get a degree in the science field,” McKinney said. “[The Mission Science Workshop] honestly gave me a space to start exploring my own creativity.”
The half-Irish half-Mexican resident of Diamond Heights grew up in the Mission, which he said allows him to have a closer bond with students living in his former neighborhood.
“The amount of connections that I’m making with them is great, showing them that they can come from the exact same place that I came from, and go as far as I have,” Mckinney said.
Mckinney also said some students are often not allowed to play with or touch certain things at home—the Excelsior Science Workshop is a place where these limitations that stifle learning are lifted.
“One of the things I always say with my classes is that this is a safe place to guess and be wrong,” he said.
“We’re really focused on helping you figure things out.”
The Excelsior branch is part of an effort to expand into other areas with immigrant populations who often learn English as a second language and don’t have the same educational opportunities as others.
“We want to give our time to the kids whose families have to work three or four jobs, and have six kids to take care of and don’t have the resources to take them to the Academy of Sciences all the time,” Mckinney said.
Through grants, donations and help from volunteers, the workshop offers after-school programs and invites students to visit on field trips for lessons that supplement what they are learning in the classroom.
The organization originally started in 1991 inside founder and Executive Director Dan Sudran’s Mission District garage, where the former City College of San Francisco electronics technician would practice his hobby of tinkering. His garage quickly became an outlet for curious neighborhood Latino children to explore their creativity through some of their own experiments.
Recognizing the demand for a space where children could explore science, Sudran approached CCSF with the idea to create the Mission Science Workshop at its Mission campus.
“On a general level science is the search for truth,” Sudran said. “That’s where I see the big failure with our educational system; it’s not giving the learners a real help in the search for truth that science is.”
The Mission Science Workshop has since moved to Mission High School’s old auto shop. The workshop’s shelves are cluttered with contraptions made by former students such as homemade speakers and handmade wooden scooters—it is a veritable mad scientist’s laboratory.
On Thursday morning, Junipero Serra Elementary School teacher Pat Koblenz brought her second-grade class on a field trip to the Mission Science Workshop for the first time.
“As a teacher we have so many things we have to do and with the state focus on testing, it’s sometimes a struggle to get the science and social studies in because there’s such a focus on math and language,” Koblenz said.
Teachers at the workshop offer bilingual classes to accommodate students who are learning English. Their curriculum stresses an observational approach to learning, which often asks students to describe what they see when conducting experiments. It is this style of teaching that they say helps students internalize concepts better than the usual memorization and regurgitation of material.
“Some kids will say, ‘Wow. I always thought science was so boring’ and that’s kind of sad to hear because you realize that the rest of their experience with science was either really difficult or disengaging for whatever reason,” said Sam Haynor, a teacher at the workshop.
In addition to an opportunity to learn about science, Sudran said his workshop can provide an alternative life path for children who live in underserved neighborhoods like the Excelsior.
“You can show [children] that science is a beautiful way to satisfy the need for excitement and the need for being appreciated and cared for, but in way that you want to embrace the whole world, because you see how we are not separate from it or from other people,” Sudran said. “I think if everyone saw that, this would be a very different world.”
The Mission Science Workshop is located at 3750 18th St. inside Mission High School. The Excelsior Science Workshop is located at 35 San Juan Ave. To find out more contact (415) 621-1240 or visit their website at www.missionscienceworkshop.org.