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A science lab class is about to begin at Ronald McNair Academy in East Palo Alto on a recent Tuesday morning and the universal seventh-grader’s mien says, “I couldn’t care less.”
Visiting scientists Paul Sauer and Mary Varghese from the Redwood City-based biotechnology company OncoMed are telling the students about natural selection.
After a while, the students start to show some interest by volunteering to take part in a little experiment, closing their eyes for 10 seconds in front of a piece of red paper and then picking one of the colorful toothpicks scattered on the paper. Students are the “gobblers,” toothpicks represent the gobblers’ food and the large paper is the environment. The idea is to show how natural selection works, and it soon becomes clear that the toothpicks that blend into their background are most likely to survive. The students pick yellow or green toothpicks instead of the red ones that blend in with the red background.
This exercise was not possible at McNair middle school last year. A year ago, the science laboratory was a boys’ locker room. With the help of local volunteers and a portion of a three-year $4.5 million federal grant, the school has converted the locker room into a lab and increased the number of science classes.
The school is also collaborating with Bio-Community.org, a science education network sponsored by Northern California life science association BayBio, and designed to help underperforming and poor schools. The network enables local biotechnology companies to send visiting scientists to the school to give new perspectives on learning and on teaching science.
Bay Area biotechnology companies want to help educational institutions from middle schools to community colleges teach science because they worry about finding qualified workers such as research associates and lab technicians. That’s why they want students not only to learn science but also to make science a prospective career option.
There is good reason to worry about Californian students’ science skills. The U.S. ranked 23rd in science and 31st in mathematics out of 64 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2009 rankings of international secondary education performance. Nationally, California ranks next to last (only beating Mississippi) for both fourth and eighth grade science skills according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Natasha Rios (right) chooses a toothpick after having her eyes closed for 10 seconds. The idea of the experiment led by Mary Varghese (left) from OncoMed is to show how natural selection works. The toothpicks represent food and it soon becomes clear that the toothpicks that blend into their background are most likely to survive. Elizabeth Schar, who helps organize the visits from biotechnology companies to the McNair middle school, observes from the back of the class. Photo by Monica Jensen/SF Public Press.
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Siri Markula is a Finnish journalist working for SF Public Press as part of her Innovation Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. In Finland she works as a news editor at Helsingin Sanomat, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in Scandinavia.
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