For 30 Years, UCSF Program Has Created a Spark for Science in San Francisco Schoolchildren

By Nina Bai

four middle school students dissect a sheep heart
San Francisco Unified School District middle-school students study sheep hearts as part of a science experiment during a Science and Health Education Partnership session to learn about heart functions. Photo by Barbara Ries

The fourth-graders crowded around Marci Rosenberg as she opened a tupperware container and lifted out a human brain.

“I’m so excited!” said one student. “Are we gonna touch it?” said another.

Rosenberg asked the kids what they observed about the brain. “There are a lot of squiggles,” said one. Rosenberg went on to explain why the surface of the brain is wrinkled that way – to fit more neurons – before the students got more hands-on with their science experiment.

four elementary school children look at a human brain
Fourth graders in a San Francisco elementary school learn about brains during a hands-on science lesson with UCSF medical students. Photo by Noah Berger

The hour-long instruction was the ninth time that Rosenberg had taught science at the elementary school over three months – but she isn’t a teacher there.

Rosenberg is an MD and PhD student at UC San Francisco, and she and UCSF medical student Celia Haering are part a program called MedTeach that brings medical students into San Francisco public schools to teach science.

It is one of many science education initiatives run by UCSF’s Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP). Launched 30 years ago, SEP is a collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District that partners UCSF volunteers with approximately 200 teachers from elementary to high school levels.

From classroom programs like MedTeach, to a summer research program that brings high school students into UCSF labs, to career days, SEP has been a consistent source of quality science education over three decades of shifting educational priorities in the district. The wildly popular, two-week Bay Area Science Festival has become a highlight for families across the Bay Area, putting on over 50 science-related events every fall for more than 75,000 people.

SEP By the Numbers

Years partnering with San Francisco Unified School District

UCSF volunteers for K-12 learning programs and teacher workshops

Percentage of San Francisco Unified schools that benefit from SEP programs

Annual participants in the Bay Area Science Festival

Bringing Science to Students

Every year, SEP brings some 165 UCSF volunteers into public school classrooms to teach science – a wide-reaching program that is active in 90 percent of the public schools in the district.

Volunteers, including professional students, graduate students, postdocs and faculty, are paired with public school teachers, and together with the help of a SEP coordinator, plan a series of hands-on science lessons.

SEP Programs

Classroom programs (STAT, MedTeach, HealthTeach, Bio&ChemTeach, Pathways): UCSF volunteers partner with SFUSD teachers to co-plan and co-teach a series of science or health lessons in the classroom.

Bay Area Science Festival: A two-week, annual celebration of science with dozens of events stretching from Santa Rosa to San Jose, capped by Discovery Day at AT&T Park.

High School Intern Program: For eight-weeks each summer, selected SFUSD high school juniors are placed in UCSF laboratories to conduct biomedical research with a mentor.

San Francisco Health Investigators: High school students learn about public health in an intensive summer program and carry out a research project of their own design over the school year.

Cellular Construction Workshop: A two-week workshop that engages high school student/teacher teams in robotics design challenges to learn about cellular behavior and engineering.

STEM Career Day: High school students visit UCSF and local STEM-focused businesses for a hands-on exploration of science and technology careers.

Workshops for teachers: A variety of workshops and courses for SFUSD teachers and UCSF volunteers in inquiry-based science teaching.

Daly Ralston Resource Center: A lending library of anatomical specimens, models, scientific equipment and activity kits open to all SFUSD teachers and UCSF volunteers.

“What I love about working with SEP is that each year we have a different scientist – a virologist, the head of the neurosurgery lab, cell biologists – and work with them to find out the special knowledge they have,” said Katherine Angus, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher who has been participating in SEP for over a decade and was paired with Rosenberg and Haering this year.

Angus says the hands-on experiments make a big difference in engaging the students. They always have a lot of questions and remember what they learned.

One year, a bacteriologist helped the students swab different locations in the school and grow the cultures – they discovered that the cleanest places were the toilet handles and the dirtiest were the cafeteria tables. 

The chance to interact with scientists also helps the students think about science as a realistic career choice.

“It gives them the ability to see where they could be in 10 or 12 years, and it gives them the opportunity to ask questions about how [the volunteers] got there,” said Angus.

Transformative Summer Program

The SEP programs start as simple science experiments in elementary and middle schools, but as the students get older, the opportunities advance.

For instance, every summer, SEP brings 20 high school students to intern in UCSF labs. The eight-week intensive research experience has been transformative for many of the students, who are nominated by their high school science teachers.

“We’re not seeking the students at the top of their classes,” said SEP co-director Katherine Nielsen. “We want the students who have a spark for science and who the teachers feel like could really grow that spark. The program can make a critical difference in the life of those students.”

Many alumni have gone on to careers in science and medicine and benefitted from lasting mentorship.

Brandan Dotson, now a fourth-year medical student at UCSF, attended the program in the summer of 2009. He was a student at Lowell High School, known for its academic competitiveness, but was having a difficult time. He was doing especially poorly in his biology class, but looked up to the teacher – the first black man he knew with a PhD.

“When I told him I really wanted to be doctor, he said, you have to work really hard. He really saw potential in me,” said Dotson.

Brandan Dotson listens to Robert Wong during rounds at Highland Hospital in Oakland
Brandan Dotson (center) listens to Robert Wong, MD, MS (second from right), UCSF assistant clinical professor, during rounds at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Dotson, now a fourth-year medical student at UCSF, attended the SEP summer program in 2009. Photo by Noah Berger

The teacher nominated him for the SEP research program and that summer working in the pulmonology lab of Dean Sheppard, MD, helped set Dotson on the path toward medical school.

“It was the first time I’d ever been in a research academic lab and it was somewhat intimidating, like, ‘What am I doing here?’ But it was also very fun because I was the only high school student and everyone wanted to show me things,” said Dotson.

He worked closely with Mallar Bhattacharya, MD, then a research fellow in the lab. “Having mentors early on that really believed in me has really propelled me. It was a huge boost to my confidence.”

Dotson went on to study chemistry at Xavier University and now medicine at UCSF. He still keeps in touch with Bhattacharya, asking him for advice about residency applications, for example.

A Steady Presence Over 30 Years

The program’s longevity means that SEP has influenced an entire generation of San Francisco public school students.

SEP was launched in 1987 by Bruce Alberts, PhD, who was then chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at UCSF.

Bruce Alberts showing 3 kids something at a classroom table
Bruce Alberts, PhD, teaches Spring Valley School first-graders in 1992, shortly after he co-founded SEP.

He had young children in the San Francisco public schools and was concerned about the science education they were receiving. His initial idea was to donate surplus laboratory equipment and supplies from UCSF to the schools, but he heard from public school teachers that what they really wanted was access to the intellectual resources – the scientists themselves.

Alberts recruited David Ramsay, DM, DPhil, then vice chancellor for academic affairs at UCSF, and with support from the University administration, was able to found SEP.

Today, SEP is led by co-directors Nielsen and Rebecca Smith, and receives about one-third of its funding from UCSF and the rest from federal and foundation grants, corporate funding and private donors.

The funding allows them to run the classroom volunteer programs, the summer programs, and to provide a vast lending library of hands-on teaching materials, including human organs, animal specimens, microscopes and other scientific equipment, that is free and and open to all public school teachers in San Francisco.

Nielsen and Smith often hear from teachers that SEP provides a stable support for science education. And over the years, they’ve witnessed the ripple effect of their work as teachers gain confidence in their ability to incorporate science into their classrooms.

“Teachers will come to us afraid of teaching science, but through the partnership program they overcome that fear and see the impact of teaching science on their students,” said Nielsen. One teacher told her that said she’d been wary of teaching science, but after working with SEP partners for two years, she felt like she could teach everything she needed to teach through science.

Building the Next Generation

Nielsen and Smith, who both have been with the organization since around 2000, see the long-term impact of the program’s award-winning work.

In 2011, SEP was honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring at a White House ceremony. But the rewards are also more personal.

first graders look up and smile during a science experiment
First graders learn about states of matter in a science experiment with UCSF researchers that included making ice cream. Photo by Noah Berger

“Every year when we interview high school students for the summer programs, students will mention that they remember having volunteers coming into their elementary- or middle-school classes. They remember seeing human organs borrowed from our lending library,” said Nielsen.

They often get emails out of the blue from alumni – someone who just graduated from college majoring in biochemistry, for example – reflecting on their time at UCSF.

“I’m cautious to say that that one experience is what caused that student to be interested in science, but it’s a spark, it’s part of the whole landscape,” said Nielsen. “They had these experiences with science, and who scientists are, and it’s part of building the next generation.”