KiDS

Davis volunteers help underserved kids discover science

Graduate student in Ecology Eric LoPresti shows kids evidence of leaf miners in action. Photo by Allie Weill.

Graduate student in Ecology Eric LoPresti shows kids evidence of leaf miners in action. Photo by Allie Weill.

04/10/14

Students at Lower Lake Elementary school in Lake County are exploring their natural world and learning about the scientific process through the all-volunteer UC Davis program, Kids into Discovering Science (KiDS!).

Since 2011, KiDS! has brought the enthusiasm and expertise of UC researchers and a hands-on science curriculum to the fifth graders of Lower Lake, an underserved community.

Evolution and Ecology researcher Kara Moore directs the program, wherein UC Davis student volunteers teach in-class lessons and lead field trips, building student's knowledge and interest in core curriculum areas of science, math, and critical thinking through student-led experiments on plant biology and ecology.

"On the first day of class, I asked the kids if they liked science and math. Almost all of them said yes, enthusiastically. Even for math!" said Ecology Graduate Group student Allie Weill. "Sometimes kids say that they want to be scientists when they grow up. One said, 'I want to be study plants and discover a new plant that helps people.'"

Such declarations are the best kind to Weill and her fellow volunteers, who hope that that their mentorship demonstrates that becoming a scientist is a real, feasible goal for students from a range of backgrounds.

"One of the most important aspects of the program is that it introduces these kids to a bunch of young scientists with a variety of backgrounds, interests, and goals," Weill said.

And that mentoring appears to be working. Recently students completed a post-program evaluation during the final in-class lesson, in which they drew a scientist and answered questions about what the scientist in their drawing was doing.

"One of the girls said that her scientist was not afraid of disgusting things," said Ecology Graduate Group student Lauren Camp, who studies the population genetics of the raccoon roundworm. "During the field day there were multiple examples of research activities that could be considered gross, and during past classroom lessons I had told the students that my research involves dissecting raccoons."

Through the program, students are engaged in biological curiosity, hypothesis testing, and the scientific process. Students develop hypotheses, build an experiment, collected data, and learn to test their hypotheses by calculating averages and graphing results.

Weill said that some the kids get very attached to the plants in their experiments and often name them.

"One girl named every seedling after a different character in 'Family Guy.'"

And the program benefits UC Davis students, too, who get hands-on teaching experience.

"I get the opportunity to work on my science communication skills in a really fun and forgiving setting," Ecology Graduate Group student Jan Ng said. "It's tough to manage the crowd in terms of attention, but I can be comical about any mistakes I make and the students are okay with that."

Moore added that providing a chance for UC Davis researchers to conduct community outreach is a prime goal of the program, which is solely funded by generous donations from colleagues.

"Our program is all-volunteer, including me, and we rely on small donations from faculty and staff with research grants," Moore said. "When colleagues and I founded the program in 2010, one of our objectives was to provide an opportunity for recipients of the NSF and other large grants to easily participate in outreach on their research."

The classroom experimental program culminates in a full day of hands on science activities outside at Donald and Sylvia McLaughlin Natural Reserve led by UC graduate students in ecology, evolution, geology, plant science, entomology.

On the field day, elementary students hike, explore pond life, and conduct an experiment on food webs in different habitat types, connecting many of the concepts that they learned in the classroom to in-the-field observations.

They also run around a lot.

"We pull every camp counselor trick we can think of to organize 60 to 70 students on the big day," Ng said.

Moore added that the entire program is supported by Lower Lake's parent and teacher community, but the McLaughlin field trip is a special day when everyone's efforts come together.

"One of my favorite things about the field day program is talking with the many parents that come on the trip," Moore said. "Many have experience in wildlands, hunting or hiking, to share with us and with the kids. But others are seeing ecology in action for the first time."

Weill, Ng and Camp all agree that despite the occasional chaos both in the classroom and out, the rewards far outweigh the challenges of working with these rambunctious, enthusiastic students. "Hugs from fifth graders are wonderful," Weill said.

For more information or to find out how you can get involved with KiDS!, please contact Kara Moore at kmoore@ucdavis.edu.