Science is awesome. Science is everywhere. Science is for everyone.
These three principles are the pillars of the nonprofit Science is Elementary, according to founder and CEO Tzipor Ulman, and drove its latest project of distributing more than 4,000 science experiment story books in underserved communities.
“Our goal (with the books) is to reach as many students as we can and inspire them with hands-on science projects,” said director of curriculum Rinat Goren, “especially those that don’t have access to science otherwise.”
In an effort that began over the summer in Milpitas and moved into Mountain View after the organization was unable to continue in-person instruction and professional development in local schools, Ulman said the books were distributed at the free-meal pickups at the target elementary schools.
“We thought this was a close enough approximation of the communities that we’re looking for, and that way anyone who showed up to pick up food, and who had kids in the grades kindergarten through second, was able to get these books,” the Los Altos resident said.
Goren said she hand-draws the picture books – featuring two children of color, Jasmine and Jose – that lead students through activities from building play structures out of toothpicks and marshmallows to studying density in the kitchen.
Getting students engaged in the lessons, especially during distance learning, is integral to developing their scientific skills.
“The kids get really excited because as far as they’re concerned, they’re just playing with toothpicks and marshmallows, but really they’re learning engineering,” Ulman said.
Program director Jennifer Urmson said that because many of the students they serve are English-language learners, the books have no words in them, so it would be “something where language would not be a huge barrier to learning.” She said there is also a handbook for an adult companion that comes in both English and Spanish.
According to Ulman, during their many years of teaching before the book kits, Science is Elementary members have always aimed to harness students’ curiosity and stimulate interest in STEM careers. They track their results through annual end-of-year surveys that compare students in the program to a control group with the same demographics who did not participate.
Of the data collected in the survey from 74 Science is Elementary participants and 83 students in the control group, statistics that stand out include students in the program increase their science knowledge by 85% each year, 100% of the students in the program said science is fun, and girls in the program are twice as likely to want a career in STEM than the girls in the control group.
Ulman added that teachers in the schools the organization works with have increased their hours of teaching science and incorporated more fields of study into their classes.
However, online learning has posed obstacles to the program’s progress, Ulman said, as many students lack access to technology, reliable Wi-Fi and materials.
“There are still a lot of issues with online school, ... so education is really not that great right now,” she said. “Many (underserved) elementary schools are just focusing on reading and math as much as they can and everything else is kind of falling away.”
Although virtual lessons through Science is Elementary have continued, the original idea was to work with kids in the classroom because “we really care about equity and equality and … everyone’s at school,” Ulman said.
Ulman founded Science is Elementary in 2008, when her son was a kindergartner. As a chemist, she was interested in elementary school science programs.
“We were looking around at different schools and realized that many schools weren’t doing a great job teaching science, and also schools that had a high population of kids who came from impacted communities … were not teaching science at all,” she said.
She then took matters into her own hands and created Science is Elementary to fill the gap.
Similarly, Goren said “back when my kids were really young, I didn’t like the way they were taught science,” so she joined as a volunteer before beginning to teach lessons to the students and now works to refine the curriculum as a director.
Urmson added that the program exposes students to people in STEM careers, which helps them see themselves as scientists, noting, “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
“Kids are really innately curious, care a lot about the world and ask questions, so being able to harness that curiosity is something that’s really important,” she said. “And being able to show them how cool science is at such a young age really gets them engaged and excited.”
For more information, visit scienceiselementary.org.