SALINAS – A new science program in Salinas opened Saturday featuring everything from a 30-foot whale skeleton to a hand-made hovercraft buzzing around a schoolyard that held rapt attention from kids as well as a host of elected officials praising the merits of the project.
Called the Salinas Community Science Workshop, the program aims to provide hands-on applications of science and engineering for seventh- and eighth-grade students at El Sausal Middle School in east Salinas. The program hopes to expand elsewhere in Salinas as it’s done in Watsonville and Greenfield.
Programs like this are important to closing the science achievement gap that affects low-income students say experts. A number of factors conspire to challenge test scores in science for not just low-income students but for all students in California. In 2019 less than one-third of all students statewide met standards set for science achievement, according to state data.
Deneen Guss, the Monterey County superintendent of schools, said that from the perspective of both an educator and a parent it’s programs like this that can connect kids with real-world principles of science and engineering that they are learning about in classrooms.
“Our students need more opportunities to engage in hands-on science that allows them to explore, unleash their innovative mind, problem solve, and be curious about the world around them,” Guss said. “The more we create learning opportunities where students can experience building, inventing and questioning what makes things work, and engage in collaboration and conversation with others, the more the learning of scientific concepts occurs through a student’s own discovery.”
Curt Gabrielson, the director of the program and who has been instrumental in helping similar programs get off the ground, notes that schools today are often strapped for resources, so programs like this can augment classroom study.
“Every kid needs tools in their hands,” Gabrielson said Saturday. “Every kid needs the opportunity to explore, create and tinker in an environment rich with tools, materials and phenomena of every type. Every successful scientist, engineer, artist and technician had that kind of opportunity. It was a critical part of their education.”
Common projects are woodworking, bicycle repair and modification, basic electronic circuits with hobby motors, lights and speakers, and magnetic toys. Garden boxes, planters and animals are also part of the workshop.
Assemblyman Robert Rivas, whose district includes Salinas and most of Monterey County, said Saturday that programs like this are critical to under-resourced schools and communities.
“This will be an opportunity to provide students the space, the tools and the encouragement to bring their imagination to life, and to discover and develop their skills and realize their full potential — whatever path they may choose,” he said.
County Supervisor Luis Alejo, whose district includes the Alisal area of Salinas, said the program has the potential to serve students by not only teaching them about the fundamentals of science, but also skills they can use throughout life.
“The workshop will not only promote the sciences, but also spur critical thinking, imagination, investigation and problem solving for our children who often do not have access to such enhanced educational opportunities,” Alejo said. “Kids need tools in their hands to learn, succeed academically and have paths to good careers.”
Gabrielson, the program director, said the project’s vision is “to offer the workshop to every kid in the Alisal, and then every kid in Salinas and then all of northern Monterey County.”
He has nearly three decades of experience conducting informal science education with underserved communities in California and internationally. Gabrielson founded and directed the Watsonville science workshop for 11 years and has also worked in the Greenfield and San Francisco workshops. He has a degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has published several books on hands-on science education.
The program has been funded through $21,000 in grants from the Community Foundation for Monterey County as well as funders outside the county. But Gabrielson emphasized that the program needs additional support. While a formal donation system is still being developed, anyone interested in contributing can contact Gabrielson at email@example.com.