• by Eloy Rodriguez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1998 • 

I have drawn a number of conclusions about effective science education partnerships based on my rewarding experience establishing the Kids Investigating and Discovering Science (KIDS) program at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

I targeted the Santa Ana Unified School District (USD), which has an enrollment of more than 49,000 students, of whom 92 percent are minority and 64 percent are limited-English-proficient (LEP) – the greatest concentration of such students in California.

With colleagues at UCI, I began the KIDS program five years ago to provide Latino children from low-income families with an engaging and challenging university-based science “camp.” The focus of the program is project-based learning on topics at the forefront of biology, especially field biology. We want the children to actually envision themselves as young scientists. They wear white laboratory coats and work side-by-side with teachers, research faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students. In this respect, the program is truly an intergenerational model of teaching and learning.

We made our laboratories and field research sites places where children from kindergarten through middle school can discover and investigate the mysteries of science. The university campus has become a place in which low-income children can pose, investigate and answer fundamental questions on such topics as function, adaptation, evolution, gravity, sound, inertia, force, velocity and acceleration in an environmental framework with enthusiastic parents, compassionate student assistants and gifted bilingual teachers from the school district. Bilingualism is crucial for the success of this program since the majority of KIDS students and parents speak Spanish only.

The true partnership is that of the KIDS program and the parents. This sprung from my own experience. My educational success in a poor south Texas school was largely due to my mother’s active involvement in PTA and teacher-parent conferences. Therefore, the program insists that parents be made participatory partners in this unique endeavor.

University faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, parents, teachers and principals all consider the KIDS program to be a great success. Evaluation data show this to be true. We have seen that a partnership between the university campus and public schools can enable minority children to experience the joy and excitement of science and can have an enormous impact on the children’s learning and interest in science. A clear indicator of success is the students’ improvement in their grades at their “normal” school (a term students used to separate KIDS-UCI from their school) and comments from parents indicating that their children are more involved in their studies.

Our basic goal for the KIDS program is to develop a generation of children who learn to think and understand the importance of education in order to go to college and pursue a career in the sciences. The KIDS program is a year-round science partnership between UCI and the Santa Ana USD. In the summer, children from Santa Ana USD schools come to the university campus where they become part of a research university. The effects of this approach have been profound. Outstanding Santa Ana USD teachers who have worked with us in designing and carrying out the program are the children’s teachers during the academic year. They tell us: “The KIDS students_ value learning about science and see it as very important, fun and challenging,” “Both boys and girls have begun to see themselves as scientists,” and “I am constantly confronted by the KIDS students with their question of ‘when can we go to UCI to study more science?'”

Distinguished minority faculty serve as role models and mentors to the school children and to minority graduate and undergraduate students who work alongside public school teachers in the program. The KIDS students typically have their first minority scientist role models in the university faculty and students. Faculty members visit the children’s schools during the academic year, and undergraduates serve as tutors at KIDS schools, continuing to serve as significant role models.

I want to re-emphasize the critical importance of parents as partners. Parents serve as volunteer homework mentors and some are paid to assist in teaching, mentoring and serving as staff. Parent programs are offered at school sites in the community daily after the summer camp ends. The activities strengthen parents’ skills in supporting their children’s learning. Principals at the children’s schools tell us, “These have become some of our most active parents at school. They are eager to share their hopes and their plans for their students to attend college…Most of our KIDS parents are participating in our Parent Institute for Quality Education.”

Finally, I want to underscore the value of building on an existing regional infrastructure that has solid community support, if one exists. An important factor contributing to the rapid and continuing success of the KIDS program is that it has been implemented in conjunction with the Student-Teacher Education Partnership (STEP). This is a collaborative effort involving the predominantly minority Santa Ana USD – the largest school district in Orange County – and institutions of higher education and other school districts in the region. STEP has been in existence for nearly 15 years and is nationally recognized as a model of school-college collaboration. It has had support at the highest levels, including UCI’s Chancellor and Santa Ana USD’s superintendent.

Notable effects of the KIDS science partnership have occurred in the children’s’ school-year experiences. Teachers tell us, “Many of the KIDS students have become the ‘leaders’ in their classrooms in the area of science and problem solving.” Principals tell us, “Due to the fact that four of our teachers have been KIDS teachers, we’ve been ‘infected’ with KIDS philosophy and focus on inquiry.” It can and does work schoolwide across all areas of the curriculum.

I urge colleagues at other colleges and universities to collaborate with school districts in creating similar programs enabling children to participate in the university scientific life. In these partnerships, the university campus becomes a truly common ground for fostering the love and learning of science.

Eloy Rodriguez, Ph.D., is the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University. A native of Edinburg, Texas, he is the first U.S.-born Latino to hold an endowed position in the sciences. This article is reprinted with permission from the author and the publication Common Ground.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]