Project Teaches the 'Magic of Science' in Western Addition

By Shipra Shukla

By Shipra Shukla For fifth-grader Diamond Mims, learning about the wonders of science is extra special when textbook lessons come to life with help from visiting scientists. "Today, we're learning about molecules and atoms from real scientists, and I can't wait to go home and tell my mom and dad about what I learned," said the 10-year-old. The scientists are in fact students from the UCSF School of Pharmacy who launched the voluntary program that engages the fifth-graders in hands-on experiments to reflect the new science curriculum. "With the new science curriculum, the students are introduced to scientific concepts through hands-on experiments first, then they're given a lesson," says fifth-grade teacher Logan Marcus-Janssen. "It makes more sense for them to relate definitions and ideas to something they've already done." Now in its second year, the Rosa Parks Science Discovery Project at Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco's Western Addition neighborhood is the brainchild of UCSF third-year pharmacy student Ashish Patel, who fondly remembers the fifth-graders' reaction last year. "The look in the students' eyes is just amazing. When they see lettuce or celery frozen by liquid nitrogen crumble to the floor, or when they realize how science relates to life, you can just see the wonder in their eyes." After learning about the lack of science education at Rosa Parks Elementary, Patel and his colleagues decided to modify the high school-level outreach program he had developed to fit the elementary school level. The Rosa Parks project is one of many ways in which UCSF students, scientists, scholars and staff regularly serve the community. UCSF has long been a leader in enriching the educational experiences of students enrolled in public schools throughout the city. The Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) - a collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) now in its 20th year - is a national model in bringing UCSF's vast pool of scientists into kindergartens through high schools for the benefit of students and SFUSD teachers alike. Student outreach activities like these are receiving renewed attention, as are other community service endeavors, which are deemed a priority in the UCSF Strategic Plan. The strategic plan specifically calls for serving the community in part by strengthening partnerships with K-12 schools. The plan also calls for nurturing diversity in part by expanding and initiating new K-16 educational programs that expose diverse students to UCSF at an early age. "The Rosa Parks Science Discovery Project was started by students, and continues to be entirely student-driven," says Chris Cullander, associate dean of Student and Curricular Affairs in the School of Pharmacy. "While I occasionally help them with bureaucratic details, it's very much their show and they do an outstanding job." Making an Impact When the UCSF pharmacy students, all members of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association (SNPhA), recently walked into Marcus-Janssen's class at Rosa Parks Elementary School wearing their red SNPhA shirts, the sense of anticipation and excitement was palpable. The fifth-graders leaned out of their seats, eager to get a better look at the household supplies being carried in for their next scientific experiment.
Diamond Mims

Diamond Mims listens to a presentation by members of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association.

Relating science to everyday life and making the connection to careers in health sciences to a fifth grader's life are a goal of the program. And by going into the classroom six times in one school year, UCSF students seem to have a greater impact than if they went in once a year. "I didn't like the drive-by outreach approach, where you just go in one time to do an experiment and leave," Patel says. "You need to create a bond and relationship with students. You have to capture their interest and link what happens in the classroom to what happens in reality." The UCSF students coordinate their lessons with state requirements for fifth-graders. The experiments begin with the basics, atomic elements and the periodic table, and then move on to physical properties and chemical reactions, ending the year with lessons on nutrition and DNA. Popular demonstrations include using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream. The reaction of the fifth-graders to the experiments provides immediate gratification to the pharmacy students. Addressing Disparities The program also serves to bridge the disparities in both the science curriculum and socioeconomic circumstances of the underfunded school, which severely lacks science resources and teaches children from a working-class community. Esther Honda, the school librarian, who has a science education background, serves as the program's liaison with UCSF. Last year's program created a buzz at Rosa Parks Elementary, she says. "This year, they know the scientists from UCSF are coming and they're excited." Honda says the program is making a difference because students are learning science from real scientists. "Many of the children at this school don't come from families where an adult works in a science or health care profession," she says. "If we want to see a diverse population of health professionals in the future, we need to expose kids to science now." Victor Fujimoto, associate clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences in the UCSF School of Medicine, put the wheels for the Rosa Parks Science Discovery Project in motion by highlighting the problem to representatives from SNPhA. His daughter attends the school and, while he knew she had the advantage of having a parent in a scientific profession as a role model, most of the other children did not. He sees the need to begin exposing socially and economically underprivileged children to science. "This is an effort to try and provide role models and concepts of scientific exploration to schools that have little funding," Fujimoto says. According to Fujimoto, educational studies have shown that the shaping of discovery begins early on and the impact of going in at the K-5th-grade level fosters greater engagement from the students than when they are exposed to science labs at the middle school level. By engaging the students in the health sciences as a possible career, Fujimoto believes UCSF can increase minority representation in the field.
Krystal Pong  and  Kimmi Hoang

Krystal Pong and Kimmi Hoang provide some hands on help with an experiment.

"Perhaps one of the Rosa Parks Elementary School students might be a UCSF student in the future," Fujimoto says. Moving forward, second-year pharmacy students UCSF SNPhA President Megan McCurdy and Bennett Bain, UCSF SNPhA project outreach leader, hope the program will become more interprofessional, involving students from each of UCSF's four professional schools. But this year, McCurdy is personally motivated to do her part. "I love what we're doing here. Science is an amazing and powerful subject, and to be able to teach it to elementary schools kids is truly a privilege," says McCurdy. "If we can bring the magic of science into Rosa Parks and use it to cultivate their curiosity, then we will have accomplished a lot with this program." Photos by Susan Merrell Related Links: UCSF Begins to Implement Campuswide Strategic PlanUCSF Today, October 19, 2007