A Happy, Noisy Mess: Community Science Workshops Take Root in California

Dan Sudran explains a gray whale's baleen plates to kids at Mission Science Center in San Francisco.

Kids growing up in the Bay Area have access to more than a dozen science museums and zoos but in much of the state, those opportunities don’t exist. With science programs getting trimmed in schools, that leaves many kids with little access to hands-on science. One Bay Area man wants to change that.

Dan Sudran explains a gray whale's baleen plates to kids at Mission Science Center in San Francisco.

Dan Sudran grew up a good Jewish kid in Kansas City, Missouri. He went to college then law school. But he says there was always a sinking feeling that he wasn’t really cut out for the world he’d been born into. “I couldn’t really figure out what I was or what I wanted to be. I didn’t go to college because I wanted to. I went because that’s what you were supposed to do,” says Sudran.

Discovering Science

It wasn’t until his late 30s that Sudran finally had his revelation. It happened in a garage. He had started taking apart electronics, collecting bones from the beach. In school, science had held no interest for him. But in the real, hands-on world he says, it turned out to be the thing he’d been missing all along, “My life is immeasurably better since I got into science.”

There are few rules at the science centers, but one is that kids must sit down while handling animals.

And this gave Sudran an idea. What if he could give kids the same experience he’d waited 30 years to discover? A local college donated some space and soon a small, non-profit organization called Community Science Workshop Network was born. Sudran says the idea was to be the opposite of a big science museum, “It’s your own dream garage, in a sense, just a bunch of stuff you can play around with without being nervous that the curator’s gonna have a nervous breakdown. There are no curators.”

Community Science Workshops Take Off

Today, there are five community science workshops around the state, funded by private grants. One is in Greenfield, about 30 miles south of Salinas. It’s a farm town – lettuce, broccoli, apricots – mostly Spanish speaking. It’s one room, in the back of the former Greenfield City Hall. Every inch is crammed with stuff: Bones, microscopes, power tools, a turtle, a snake. And above all, there’s noise. A lot of noise. As kid’s bang away, Jose, a middle schooler, builds a submersible robot. “It’s the submarine type of thing. It runs on little engine things that would spin,” says Jose.

As someone strums a guitar, an 11-year old named Eduardo scoops tadpoles out of a bucket of pond water to look at them under a microscope. “We have to take it out of the water, he explains.” Meanwhile, spread out on the floor, some older kids trim the outlines of a future hot air balloon and another kid plays the ever appealing, though not terribly scientific, Casio keyboard.

The Greenfield Community Science Workshop, near Salinas, runs on a budget of $50,000 a year, with one full-time employee.

Running this place costs about $50,000, paid for by a grant from Bechtel and the Packard Foundation. But Sudran says grants can be sort of a mixed blessing. For instance, not long ago he came across a stranded gray whale on a beach near his house in Pescadero. “It was lifted up by the tide high on the beach. And it was completely recoverable. And there was no loss. I couldn’t believe it, says Sudran.

Sudran has a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service to collect specimens and he thought the skeleton would make a good teaching tool. Although it would have been nice to get some funding, Sudran says there was no time for something like that. “You say these bones are gonna be lost. I can’t let that happen. I’m not gonna waste time writing a grant. That takes months.”

Bones from a gray whale that beached in Pescadero, Ca.

Sudran got some volunteers to pull up the bones, then brought them to his backyard and spent months cleaning them off. Now he brings the entire skeleton to schools where kids can put it together. “There ain’t no budget. No time for a budget, we just gotta go do it.”

The dream, Sudran says, is to take this model all over the state, “So many places, I could reel them off. Oxnard, Bakersfield, el Central. We don’t want to make our place any bigger. We want more of them.” The small southern California desert town of Coachella is in the works, so is Vallejo, and Sudran hopes soon to open a center in Daly City.

A Happy, Noisy Mess: Community Science Workshops Take Root in California 11 June,2013Amy Standen


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios' science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

Email her at astanden@kqed.org

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