Inside USD

Deepening the Discovery of Science

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What is science?

The possibilities for answers seem endless, but one sure-fire description is that it’s about discovery.

This spring, discovery was the operative word for 17 University of San Diego students in the class, Science in the Public Domain.

Taught for only the second time at USD, veteran Biology Professor Sue Lowery led this interdisciplinary course — nine students in biology, eight in chemistry — that enhanced students’ skills set. Call it a one-semester awakening in becoming a more well-rounded scientist.

Lowery’s syllabus points to the need for students and sciences to embrace this discovery:

“Science may be conducted in a laboratory or at a specific field site, but the results have impacts that reach throughout the public sector. Increasingly, scientists are expected to communicate their results to the public, engage in public discourse where science impacts policy, and participate in outreach to younger students. Granting agencies encourage or explicitly expect outreach as a component of funding to provide educational enrichment or inspiration for the next generation of scientists and engineers. Informal science learning opportunities through museums, television and movies, camps or after-school programs have mushroomed into some of the most important avenues for learning science for children and, particularly, adults. Thus, more than ever before, the ability to communicate science to a wide audience is an essential skill.”

It’s All in the Presentation

“I’d never thought about how to present science to others,” Carley Nagel said, shortly after she and her classmates, Taylor Lasof (pictured, far right with Nagel) and Jose Rosales-Chavez and Taylor Lasof, spent a recent afternoon at Linda Vista’s San Diego Cooperative Charter School. There, they led a hands-on demonstration to extract DNA from strawberries to third- and fourth-graders.

Each USD student in the class did 20 hours of on-site community service-learning work for the first- to fifth-graders by way of basic, fun and engaging science projects.

“The projects are very much their own,” Lowery said. “It helps the students develop critical-thinking skills, planning projects, executing them and having to adjust, be flexible.”

Lessons included surface tension by combining milk, soap, glue and food coloring together in a bowl; cotton swabs for kids to swipe and learn about bacteria; experiments involving items such as vinegar, lemon juice and red cabbage; water-based projects that connect to plants, bugs (snails) and fossils; and effectively using Pop Rocks and Skittles candies that double as delicious data recorders.

“I never got to do this kind of stuff as a kid,” Lasof said. “It’s a lot of fun to expose these young children to the wonders of science.”

Said Ashley Torkelson (pictured at left, in middle), who partnered with Shea Gallagher, Jennifer Lazzara and Samantha Jensen on surface tension: “You hope these children really get interested in science. Our project was visually attractive with all the colors involved. It was great to see it happen right then and there, having them ask ‘why is this happening?” That’s exactly what we want.”

Jessica Sully (top picture) was paired with Faye Mankowske on the water-based projects, said she enjoyed brainstorming potential projects: “I got some ideas from my mom, too, who’s a schoolteacher. We talked a lot about this class.”

Students participated as mentors and volunteers for STEM workshops at the March 3 Expanding Your Horizons Conference at USD, an event that exposed sixth- to 10th-grade girls to science and engineering disciplines.

Many Career Paths Through Science

While serving as teachers, the aim was to “stimulate curiosity” in the children. That same idea was instilled in USD students in a Shiley Center for Science and Technology classroom.

“I was interested in it because it was so different from any other class I’d ever taken,” Lazzara said.

• Students were given scientific reports and discussed strengths and weaknesses of how information was presented and ways it could be more effectively communicated. Press releases, newspaper and online articles were used to gauge how science is portrayed in informal environments.

• A trip to the San Diego Museum of Natural History and Reuben H. Fleet Science Museum had students examine scope, presentation style and modes of engagement of the exhibits. Students were then told to present a museum project in class.

• Science discussions were held on government, foundation and corporate funding, the relationship of funding and public science policy, and public versus private funding. Students were assigned to write a grant proposal.

• Lowery fortified discussions with guest speakers. Local science writer/teacher, Lynne Friedmann talked about communicating science better through writing. USD Marine Science and Environmental Studies Professor Michel Boudrias, involved closely with USD’s sustainability efforts and a Climate Change Educational Partnership funded through the National Science Foundation, also spoke.

Students said Boudrias’ talk really opened their minds about media coverage of science and how it contributes to public perception. Jensen said he talked about how tough it is to talk about climate change. Sully said she’s amazed people “are still balking, they’re still skeptical” about climate change.

Diverse Appreciation

The diverse, applicable course content was shaped and taught initially in Spring 2010 by USD Chemistry Professor Peter Iovine. His chemistry students worked with children at Linda Vista’s Bayside Community Center after-school program. They built a small garden, tracked plant growth and built scale models of planets for a solar system project. His students did a podcast on a science topic.

“Service-learning opportunities in a major such as sociology or the humanities is obvious, but it isn’t as obvious in the sciences,” Iovine said.

Lowery’s class appreciated their experiences, too, especially Mankowske, who saw it as a chance to connect it to her non-science major.

“It’s been an advantage to have this class because I really believe there are a lot of opportunities available,” said the Biology and English major. “I’ve always thought I’d be interested in science writing and when I heard about this class, I jumped at it.”

Proving that science, in nearly every form, is an opportunity for discovery.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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