By Marsha Sutton
Science lovers: Get ready for a weeklong adventure in science exploration with the second annual San Diego Science Festival 2010, which kicks off this Saturday, March 20, with Science Family Day at Balboa Park and concludes next Saturday at Petco Park.
A countywide extravaganza, the San Diego Science Festival is organized by the University of California, San Diego and is meant to inspire young learners and their families with curiosity, expanded knowledge and deeper appreciation for the wonders and beauty of science.
Last year, the inaugural festival attracted 250,000 people and culminated in the largest single gathering in the country of science enthusiasts – 50,000 people at Balboa Park for the closing Expo. This made the San Diego Science Festival a national model and gained organizers a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support the growth of science festivals throughout the country.
This year's theme is "Excite Your Mind," and the mission of the festival is "to create exciting and interactive experiences that showcase the remarkable science of greater San Diego."
Getting kids excited about future careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries is also a goal. To that end, providing interactive and hands-on science presentations geared toward students in kindergarten through 12th grade is a focus.
Supporting this objective are many San Diego County school districts that are partnering with organizers, including San Diego Unified, Poway Unified, Oceanside Unified, San Dieguito Union High, Grossmont Union High, Sweetwater Union High and others.
Dianna Carberry, Secondary School Improvement Officer for the San Diego Unified School District, is an advisory board member for the festival, a former math and science teacher and represents SDUSD at this year's celebration.
"SDUSD's involvement is to promote the field of science and to engage all our students and their families in activities to broaden their own knowledge and to learn about science careers and businesses in San Diego County," she said.
"The goal is to make science fun and for students to identify with the field as a viable career. It's also an opportunity to increase the public's awareness of the contributions of the STEM field to our local and national economy and for parents to encourage their children's interest in this field."
Carberry said San Diego Unified participates in the BioBridge program, a curriculum that brings the work of Dr. Roger Tsien from UCSD, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2008, into the classroom.
"And we support the Nifty 150 scientists on our campuses," she said, referring to a program that identifies local science professionals who volunteer to tell their stories in San Diego classrooms.
At this year's festival, SDUSD will have 10 schools participating in the Rubik's Cube competition and numerous schools are sponsoring booths, she said.
Nancy Taylor, the K–12 science coordinator at the San Diego County Office of Education, serves as the festival's K-12 program coordinator. She's also the executive director of the San Diego Science Alliance, and writes and leads programs and publications that reach more than 500,000 teachers and students in the county and state.
Taylor said SDCOE works closely with San Diego Science Festival organizers to provide age-appropriate exhibits and programs for K-12 students from all 42 school districts in the county.
"Our involvement includes communicating through our teacher and school administrator networks to engage teachers, students and families," she said. "SDCOE supports SDSF's efforts to build public awareness of the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education in K-12, starting as early as possible."
Taylor also said the San Diego Science Alliance, which will display robotics at work on Expo Day at Petco Park on March 27, is the conduit for information to the region's K-12 science teachers through a weekly electronic newsletter. "The SDSF relies on this communication network extensively," she said.
But the science festival is only a small part of a larger picture, Taylor said, emphasizing the work done by groups throughout the county to promote science education on an ongoing basis.
Shortage of science teachers
It's been no secret that the United States falters in STEM in international circles, leading to the push to increase interest in science among K-12 students.
"Our nation is a large contributor to the STEM field," said San Diego Unified's Carberry. "Unfortunately, we are not producing a sufficient workforce for this field."
Girls, who traditionally shy away from STEM careers, have been the focus of many programs to make science more accessible to them.
A program of the San Diego Science Alliance called BEWiSE (Better Education for Women in Science & Engineering) offers programs, including overnights at science venues, for girls in seventh and eighth grades that explore topics in science, encourage girls to choose more math and science courses in school, and expose the girls to adult female scientists. BEWiSE also provides continued support through their high school years for girls identified as interested in pursuing careers in science.
In existence for 10 years, BEWiSE has mentored more than 1,200 girls in grades 7-12, with 250 teachers and 200 industry professionals taking part in the many facets of the project. Thirty-two school districts, 170 schools and 70 STEM industry sites have participated in BEWiSE.
Recognized last December by the California School Boards Association for its positive impact in advancing young women's interest in science, BEWiSE selects no more than two students per school, beginning in seventh grade, to participate in the program. Selection is based on essays and teacher recommendations.
Former astronaut and UCSD physics professor Sally Ride offers numerous programs for girls that promote science as a career.
In addition, the Sally Ride Science Academy helps elementary and middle school teachers raise student interest in science, hoping to make the study of science more meaningful to students in grades kindergarten through eighth. The Sally Ride Science Academy bases its approach on research showing that introducing young students to diverse examples of science careers and scientists can ignite their interest.
However, providing students with fully trained teachers in science subjects is a challenge. For example, a report released mid-February raised concerns about the qualifications of trained high school physics teachers, noting a serious shortage.
The National Task Force on Teacher Education in Physics stated in the report that "the national system of preparing physics teachers is largely inefficient, mostly incoherent and massively unprepared to deal with the current and future needs of the nation's students."
The report's call to action states that all high school students should have "the opportunity to learn physics with a qualified teacher." The report did find that there are "isolated pockets of excellence."
Other findings include:
- Out of 23,000 high school physics teachers in the country, only about one-third have a degree in physics or physics education.
- About 400 new physics teachers are hired each year, but the need approaches 1,200 per year, based on retirement and resignation statistics.
- The system fails to provide adequate and equitable science instruction to minority and poor students.
- Education institutions often fail to give sufficient support to sustain quality physics departments.
Even in the high-scoring San Dieguito Union High School District, California Standardized Testing and Reporting results for 2009 for math and science subjects show gaps in learning, particularly in math. The following percentages of students were recorded as proficient or advanced, with the rest at basic levels or below, in these subject areas:
- Geometry in ninth grade – 59 percent
- Algebra II in 10th grade – 39 percent
- Biology in ninth grade – 83 percent
- Chemistry in 10th grade – 55 percent
- Physics in 11th grade – 70 percent
A week-long celebration
The need is great for qualified science teachers, for increasing girls' interest in science, for exposing all young students to the wonders of science, and for making the mysterious understandable and accessible to everyone.
San Diego Science Festival 2010 provides the chance to bring science into the world of children and adults in meaningful, lasting and fun ways.
The festival kicks off this Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Balboa Park with a number of hands-on activities, including:
- "Astronaut for the day," at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, follows NASA on its last mission to service the HUBBLE telescope.
- Kids can dig in a mock archaeology pit at the San Diego History Center.
- Investigative tools encourage hands-on activities while exploring the plants, wildlife and culture inside the Japanese Friendship Garden.
- Families can walk into an oversize version of a camera obscura, a device that led to the invention of photography, at the Museum of Photographic Arts.
- Visitors can learn the science of steam locomotives by making their own paper-based steam engine at the San Diego Model Railroad.
- Folding different types of alien and space-themed paper airplanes at the San Diego Air & Space Museum's Paper Airplane Festival inspires creativity.
Daytime events all week long provide children with interactive programs. And evening lectures and demonstrations throughout the week include "The Science of Science Fiction," "The Illusion of Psychic Powers," "Science at the Edge of Space," "The Star Party" complete with telescopes and NASA engineers, and more.
The celebration concludes on March 27 at Petco Park with free admission to a day filled with more than 150 exhibits, interactive activities, demonstrations and stage performances. Attendance is expected to be in the tens of thousands for this grand finale.
This year's festival brings together more than 125 science organizations and sponsors, including Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute, San Diego Science Alliance, Biocom, General Atomics, Burnham Institute for Medical Research, Birch Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, San Diego Air and Space Museum, San Diego Natural History Museum, Quail Botanical Gardens, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, Neurosciences Institute, High Tech High and dozens more.
Many of the weeklong activities are free. The schedule and complete information are on-line at an easy-to-use Web site of considerably impressive technological design, as one might expect. Check out http://www.sdsciencefestival.com/ to see where science will take you next week.
Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.