Community Science Workshops give low-income kids around California opportunities to learn about science firsthand — from holding spiders to building robots.
Many kids who grow up in big cities have lots of opportunities to experience science hands-on. There are zoos, museums, planetariums and school field trips.
But those amenities are sometimes out of reach for lower-income children. And in some rural areas, those opportunities simply don't exist at all.
In California — as in many states — public school science programs have faced deep budget cuts. Many kids have been left behind.
Dan Sudran has taken it upon himself to help close the gap.
Instilling A Love Of Science, Early On
Sudran grew up a good, studious kid in Kansas City, Mo. He followed the rules and went to college, then law school.
But he says there was always a sinking feeling that he wasn't really cut out for the world he'd been born into.
"I couldn't really figure out what I was or what I was supposed to be," Sudran says." I didn't go to college because I wanted to. I went because that's what you were supposed to do."
Sudran finally had his revelation in his late 30s. He started taking apart electronics and collecting bones from the beach.
In school, Sudran says, science had held no interest for him at all. But out in the real world, it turned out to be the thing he'd been missing all along.
"My life is immeasurably better since I got into science," Sudran says.
And that gave him an idea. What if he could give children the same experience he'd waited 30 years to discover?
So Sudran got a college to donate some space and equipment. Pretty soon, a small nonprofit called Community Science Workshops was born.
No Curators, No Curriculum
Today there are six workshops, almost all in low-income neighborhoods around California. The idea is to be the complete opposite of a big science museum.
"It's your own dream garage, in a sense," Sudran says. "Just a bunch of stuff you can play around with, without being nervous that the curator's gonna have a nervous breakdown. There are no curators."
One of the workshops is in Greenfield, about 140 miles southeast of San Francisco. It's a flat, dusty farm town, and mostly Spanish speaking.
The workshop occupies exactly one room in the back of the former Greenfield City Hall. Every inch is crammed with stuff: bones, microscopes, power tools, even a turtle and a snake.
There's no curriculum. Nothing to memorize. Just tools to play and experiment with. And a lot of noise.
Eighth-grader Jose Vega is hard at work building a submersible robot while Esteban Espinoza, 6, scoops tadpoles out of a tank to examine them under a microscope.
And, then there's the ever-appealing — though not terribly scientific — Casio keyboard.
Grant-Powered, With Some Help From Volunteers
Running this workshop costs about $50,000 a year. It's paid for by foundation grants, but Sudran says those can sometimes be a mixed blessing.
For instance, not long ago he came across a decaying gray whale carcass on a beach near his house.
"It was lifted up by the tide high on the beach. And it was completely recoverable," Sudran says. "I mean, there was no loss."
Sudran, who has a permit to collect specimens, thought the whale bones would make a good teaching tool. It would have been nice, he says, to get some funding for something like that — but there was no time.
"I'm not gonna waste time writing a grant," he says. "That takes months. You have to do it!"
So Sudran rallied some volunteers to collect the bones, and then spent several stinky months cleaning them off. Now, he brings the entire whale skeleton to schools, where kids work together to reconstruct the 36-foot marine mammal.
His dream, he says, is to take this model of quick-and-dirty hands-on science all over the state.
"So many places, I could reel them off," Sudran says. "Oxnard, Bakersfield, El Centro" — all places where public school science has taken a hit and could use, Sudran says, a little bit of fun.
"We don't want to make our place any bigger. We want more of them."
Next up, Sudran hopes, will be the small Southern California desert town of Coachella.