Not your typical high school science lab

Lara Trale, who teaches the sophomore English classes at Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy, wrote this piece about an ongoing class project — with help from some of her students.

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photo courtesy of Katie Noonan, co-director of Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy

Stop by Lake Merritt most Tuesdays, and you’ll see dozens of high school students pulling up samples of the lake’s algae-rich water, squinting into refractometers, and peering down as a lowered Secchi disk disappears into the murk.

This is routine for the 70 sophomores of Oakland High School’s Environmental Science Academy, who have been recording water quality data since September 20 as part of their ongoing monitoring of Lake Merritt. They analyze the lake’s turbidity, salinity, density, dissolved oxygen levels, and acidity. They record water and air temperatures. Microscope analysis of a plankton tow reveals some of the smallest marine organisms living in Lake Merritt.

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Science Night: Rock-sorting, butter-making, and slime production

Family Science Night

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in West Oakland is taking its science and math lessons up a notch this year — and to do it, Principal Roma Groves told me, the faculty is enlisting parents’ help.

This evening, the school held its first Family Science Night to let parents know about the school’s new STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) focus. Teachers led demonstrations while parents helped out or took it all in.

I didn’t make it to all the classrooms, but I observed a geology lesson and watched the liquid substances kids dropped into a plastic baggie turn into goo. And I tried some butter another group of kids made (pretty good!).

making slime

Jasella Jones said she doesn’t remember getting any science when she attended another West Oakland elementary school, years ago. Now, she said, her 8-year-old daughter Amunique Usher comes home from school and teaches her — and her younger siblings — what she’s learned.

“She always has important questions that I can’t answer about the moon and the stars and the sun,” Jones said. “Just imagine what the future holds, not only for her, but for her kids and her grandkids and everyone else.”

Michele Williams’ first-graders took home their ziploc bags of neon-colored slime — but only after solemnly swearing to take care of it and not eat it, or smear it on other children, or use it “as a rocket.” (I hear that was a recent addition, and not entirely hypothetical.)

What do your schools do to promote science and to involve families in the process?


With free admission, more Oakland students taking field trips to Chabot

Photo courtesy of the Chabot Space & Science CenterBuild it, and they will come — if you offer free admission.

As part of its business deal last year with the Oakland school district, to which it still owed $8 million for a construction loan, the Chabot Space & Science Center agreed to offer free field trips to Oakland’s public schools. (Before, it had offered a discounted rate.)

This week, Chabot’s director of institutional advancement reported that 9,655 Oakland students visited the center during the 2010-11 school year, a 35 percent jump from the year before.

UPDATE: The above figures include private school visits. For the Oakland school district alone, the increase was 41 percent — 8,759 field trip visitors in 2010-11, compared to 6,215 in 2009-10.

Robert Ade, the center’s communications and media coordinator, attributed the increased participation to the new policy. Before, he said, “It was prohibitive for some schools to even think about a field trip here.”

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Academic might in OUSD

Oakland High School's Sea Lion Bowl team. Photo courtesy of Katie Noonan.

As she sent me the news of her students’ success in a day-long ocean science contest, Oakland High School teacher Katie Noonan invoked President Obama, who said in his recent State of the Union address: “We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

How could I argue with that?

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Sally Ride talks K-12 science education at Cal

Sally Ride at UC Berkeley. Photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

Last night, I had the chance to see Sally Ride in person and hear her thoughts on the nation’s ailing science education programs. Granted, I’d heard most of it before — but not from an American icon.

The quote projected behind her, from Carl Sagan, reads: “It’s suicidal to create a society that depends on science and technology … in which no one knows anything about science and technology.”

You can read the full story here.


Close the achievement gap and graduate college. Then what?

Zeus Yiamouyiannis is an Oakland-based learning consultant and former professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Carroll College. He gives us his take on education reform in general and “Waiting for Superman” in particular — and the film-maker’s assertion that 120 million new high-paying jobs await us in 2020.

Zeus Yiamouyiannis (courtesy photo)American Education has a reality problem and a vision problem. If you listen to policy leaders, rescuing U.S. education simply requires closing the ethnic/social class academic achievement gap and becoming first in the world in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This ostensibly will allow millions of young people to be channeled into the 120+ million future “high skill, high pay jobs” according to the controversial new education reform documentary, Waiting for Superman.

Anticipating this, the Obama administration is funding a “Race to the Top” focusing heavily on STEM education. KIPP charter schools spend three times as much classroom time as average schools on math and science. The more comprehensive charter schools are likewise working to ensure their students both get into college and graduate. All this is laudable on some level, but whose purposes does this serve, and does it reflect lasting actual (or even desirable) trends in the job market?

The Reality Problem
So all you need as a ticket to the good life is a four-year college degree? Tell this rosy myth to all the current, rightfully skeptical twenty-something graduates, saddled with tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars of college debt.   Continue Reading


OUSD makes deal with Chabot Space Center

Chabot telescope. Image courtesy of the Chabot Space & Science CenterIn 1999, three years before the Oakland school district realized it was millions of dollars in debt and might not be able to make payroll, the school board decided to loan $10 million to the Chabot Space and Science Center.

The center’s 86,000-foot facility, with its interactive exhibits and 100-year-old telescopes, opened in 2000 in the Oakland hills. The partnership worked, at first. But after a few years, partly because of ballooning interest rates (according to OUSD’s CFO, Vernon Hal), Chabot stopped making its debt payments. It still owes the district $8 million, Hal said.

After years of tense negotiations, the stars have begun to align: Chabot will lease its facility to OUSD for $1 a year. OUSD, in turn, will lease it back to Chabot for about $450,000 until that debt is repaid. It’s called a “Lease Lease Back Agreement.” If Chabot defaults on its payments, OUSD will (as before) be able to take over the building — though the land on which it sits is owned by the city.

As part of the agreement, Continue Reading


Science in OUSD: No longer optional

Angie Cedillo looks at a yellow swallowtail butterfly. By D. Ross Cameron/Oakland TribuneFinally, something the school district administration and teachers union can agree on!

Last week, the Oakland school board unanimously approved a proposal to require 60 minutes of science instruction each week in kindergarten through third grade, and 90 minutes in fourth and fifth grade, beginning in the fall of 2011. (If you follow me on Twitter, you might already know this. If you don’t, you should! Just go here to find my profile.)

I wrote a story about this development. It will be in tomorrow’s paper, but it’s up online, here.

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Science labs, race and equity at Berkeley High

berkeley highOur editorial board weighed in today on the controversy at Berkeley High, where parcel tax money that pays for after-school, college-prep science labs might instead fund extra teachers to work with struggling students.

At the core of the issue is the stubborn achievement gap between the school’s white students and its black and Latino students. In the 1980s, voters approved the parcel tax money in question to help bridge the gap, but it remains as wide as ever. Most of the students who participate in the after-school science program are white.

The Trib editorial argues that eliminating these rigorous labs is the wrong way to address the racial disparity. Continue Reading